Perry Wallace engineering scholarship to honor first black SEC varsity athlete

Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos and Perry Wallace. (Vanderbilt University)

Vanderbilt University will establish the Perry E. Wallace Jr. Scholarship to honor and recognize the achievements of Wallace, who, as a member of the Commodores’ basketball team, became the first African American to play varsity sports in the Southeastern Conference at a time of lethal racial division across the region.

Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos made the announcement Oct. 23 at an event that was part of Vanderbilt’s 2015 Homecoming and Reunion. The scholarship will be awarded to an undergraduate in the Vanderbilt School of Engineering, where Wallace earned his bachelor’s degree in 1970.

Perry Wallace’s experience reminds us that even in society’s bleakest hours, we must always strive for what is right and what is just.“Perry Wallace’s experience reminds us that even in society’s bleakest hours, we must always strive for what is right and what is just. Often that’s not the easiest course of action, as Perry—whose modest desire of playing college basketball required uncommon courage—well knows,” Zeppos said. “As an institution, we continue on a path of racial and social justice, of diversity, of inclusivity, and are honored to have among our alumni community a person like Perry, for his significant contributions to society, and importantly for the example of determination and enlightenment that he provides and the inspiration he offers for future generations.”

“What an incredible honor it is to have an engineering scholarship in my name,” Wallace, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, said. “It was especially gratifying to see that it was my classmates who led this initiative.”

The often brutal physical and verbal abuse Wallace faced while playing in the SEC is detailed in the award-winning biography Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South, written by Andrew Maraniss, a 1992 graduate of Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science.

Christie Hauck, a former Vanderbilt football player and past president of the National Commodore Club, said it wasn’t until Strong Inside was published in 2014 that he realized the depth of Wallace’s struggles on the team and on campus. “We were all friends with Perry. But at the time we didn’t get it,” said Hauck, founder of The Christie Cookie Company, who graduated from the College of Arts and Science in 1970. “It wasn’t until the book came out that we came to more fully understand what he endured.”

Christie has led the effort to establish the scholarship, along with 1969 A&S graduate and former basketball team manager Paul Wilson, 1970 A&S graduate Jimmy Webb and others who were at Vanderbilt with Wallace. “I hope that the scholarship will serve as a reminder for students to reach out to people you may not know,” Hauck said. “But more than anything, we want to honor and thank people like Perry—and let them know we finally get it.”

Wallace has said he never sought to force racial integration in the notoriously segregated athletic conference. In fact, Wallace—a heavily recruited top national basketball prospect during his senior year at Nashville’s Pearl High School—daydreamed as much about fleeing the South as he did about playing sports.

It wasn’t until Vanderbilt coach Roy Skinner visited Wallace and his parents that he even considered playing for what ultimately became his alma mater. Vanderbilt’s strength as a team is not what impressed him, however. Rather, it was Skinner’s simple gesture of referring to his mother and father as Mr. and Mrs. Wallace, affording them the same respect as he would a white family. That was the first time any college recruiter had spoken to his family like that, he said.

After graduating from Vanderbilt, Wallace went on to receive a law degree from Columbia University and work in the Justice Department. In 1992, he was appointed to the Environmental Policy Advisory Council of the EPA. He was a professor at Howard University and the University of Baltimore before joining American University in 1993 as a law professor specializing in environmental law, corporate law and finance.

The scholarship will provide financial support based on need for deserving undergraduates at the School of Engineering. Those wishing to contribute to the Perry E. Wallace Jr. Scholarship can visit or contact Vanderbilt’s Gift and Donor Services Office at (800) 288-0082. Checks may be mailed to Vanderbilt Gift and Donor Services; PMB 407727; 2301 Vanderbilt Place; Nashville, TN 37240-7727. Please write “Perry Wallace Scholarship” on the memo line of the check to designate your gift.

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