So said Perry Wallace on March 8th, 1970, to young Tennessean reporter Frank Sutherland the day after Wallace played his last basketball game at Vanderbilt. That interview made front page news the day the story ran: Wallace had been a high profile athlete at Vanderbilt from the moment he signed on, the first black basketball player not only at Vanderbilt but in the entire Southeastern Conference. Wallace’s “most important contribution to Vanderbilt would come a day after he’d played his final game, and it would make him persona non grata for decades to come,” writes author Andrew Maraniss in his new book, Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South.
In that interview with Sutherland, Wallace spoke for the first time to a broad audience about what he’d experienced in his four years at Vanderbilt: a tremendous sense of isolation, an invitation NOT to return to the University Church of Christ, the difficulty of dealing with certain teachers who couldn’t seem to get past the color of his skin, the physical and emotional assaults at away games, and the horrible feeling that his teammates and even his coaches didn’t understand what he was going through. Perry Wallace had just been voted most popular man on campus (“Bachelor of Ugliness”) and had received standing ovations at his last game. For him to speak out so strongly caused deep confusion and no small amount of anger in some quarters.
Andrew Maraniss sets out to explain how Perry Wallace got to that point, starting at the very beginning on north Nashville’s Short 26th Street, the beloved youngest son of Perry (Sr.) and Hattie Wallace. Perry’s strict, church-going parents held him to high standards of academic achievement and character. He excelled in music as well as athletics, practicing trumpet as a middle schoooler up to 4 hours a days. He almost played in the band at Pearl High School instead of on center court! Maraniss take us to his classes, walks in the halls with him, introduces us to various teachers, and gives us play-by-plays of exciting games, including the first high school state championship in which black and white athletes competed together, in January of 1965 (Father Ryan defeated Pearl at the buzzer, 52-51). I have rarely felt so immersed in someone else’s daily life, in a time and place that feels very distant despite its relative proximity.
Maraniss then takes us through all of the specifics of Wallace’s college decision-making process. He was highly recruited and thought long and hard about going north, east, or west – anywhere but south, anywhere but Nashville. Vanderbilt’s plain-spoken and humble Coach Roy Skinner finally convinced him and his parents that Vanderbilt would provide him a first-rate education and a chance to play in every game. Wallace didn’t love the idea of being a trailblazer, but he knew how much pride it would give his parents for him to stay and excel at Vanderbilt. He worried about what lay ahead of him there. He was a reluctant pioneer, but a hopeful one.
The heart of the book covers Wallace’s time at Vanderbilt, both on and off the court, and Maraniss’s research has been exhaustive. He gives us not only Wallace’s remembrances and impressions, but also first-hand reports from peers, coaches, reporters and Vanderbilt administrators. You have a strong sense of the journalistic war between The Tennessean and the Nashville Banner, particularly with regard to civil rights. If you live in Nashville, you’ll constantly be envisioning where the action took place – from Memorial Gym to the dorm at Vanderbilt Hall, from the Fisk campus to Perry’s apartment senior year near the corner of 17th and Edghill, from Professor Vereen Bell’s home on Graybar Lane to Chancellor Heard’s home at 211 Deer Park Drive.
Whether you’ve spent time at Vanderbilt or not, it’s fascinating to think about the environment Wallace found himself in: a campus still barely touched by the great controversies of the day, in which social life revolved around the Greek system and dorm mothers made sure that female students did not wear slacks or shorts on campus. “Facing increasing resistance on this particular issue from students in the winter of 1966, Dean of Women Margaret Cuninggim attempted to convey an open-minded attitude. ‘Of course we try to have flexibility…We would not look harshly on a girl wearing pants during a blizzard.'” All of this would change profoundly during the four years Wallace spent on campus.
You may or may not know the end of Wallace’s story. He graduated from Columbia Law School and has gone on to a career as a Professor of Law at American University. He married and has a daughter with Aspberger’s Syndrome; he considers raising her his proudest accomplishment. Vanderbilt finally reached out to him in 1989 and has recognized his achievements in meaningful ways, including retiring his jersey and hanging it at Memorial Gym – very unusual at Vanderbilt – and inducting Wallace into Vanderbilt’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008 as part of the Hall’s inaugural class.
Maraniss has told Wallace’s story with great generosity and compassion, as well as an evident love of the game of basketball. It’s a big book (weighing in at 400+ pages) but moves along at a quick pace, full of strong voices. I especially like Maraniss’s willingness to share different memories of the same event. Another editor might have reduced the number of voices and people we meet, but I think it was the right choice to include the gathered crowd. It feels like a very honest kind of history.
Wallace is given a lot of breathing room in this book. Nashville and Vanderbilt don’t always come off very well, but Maraniss recognizes good intentions and progress where he finds them. The spirit in which Maraniss writes is not one of judgment, but of seeking to understand one young man’s courageous journey in a particular time and place. That being said, Strong Inside will undoubtedly raise ghosts from the past that some would rather ignore, and I will be fascinated to hear the chatter around town about this book. I’ve already delivered copies to three friends because I was so interested in their reactions! Strong Inside is officially released on December 1st, but you can get an early copy at Parnassus on November 19th at 6:30 p.m., when he’ll be speaking and signing copies. Mayor Karl Dean will be leading the question and answer session, and I hope to see you there!
Many thanks to wonderful Miriam Mimms at Parnassus for introducing me to Andrew Maraniss and his work. Maraniss attended Vanderbilt on the Fred Russell-Grantland Rice sportswriting scholarship and first became interested in Perry Wallace and teammate Godfrey Dillard when working on a term paper in 1989. After graduation, he worked in Vanderbilt’s Athletic Department in Sports Information for five years, followed by a year as Media Relations Manager with the Tampa Bay Rays. He returned to Nashville to join McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations in 1998, where he’s been ever since. For the last eight years, he’s worked on Strong Inside.
You might be interested to know that Maraniss grew up on Georgetown basketball. His family had season tickets to the games during the Patrick Ewing era, and he goes so far as to admit that he might have cried when UNC beat Georgetown in the NCAA Finals. Growing up in Raleigh, the daughter of a UNC alum, I seem to remember a pretty amazing shot at the end of that game made by a freshman (named Jordan).