As the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, Perry Wallace earned plenty of headlines. But few of the articles under those headlines told Wallace’s real story, or described the emotions he felt as he made history almost half a century ago.
Andrew Maraniss, who graduated from Vanderbilt a generation after Wallace and first interviewed him for a black history class, takes readers behind the headlines with a meticulously researched book, Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South. The story is told unapologetically from Wallace’s side, but it’s a side that needs to be heard.
As valedictorian of his class at Nashville’s all-black Pearl High School in 1966 and leader of the state champion Pearl Tigers, Wallace was, on the surface, the perfect candidate to integrate the SEC. In many ways, Vanderbilt’s move succeeded, with Wallace starring on the court and, off the court, being chosen for Vanderbilt’s highest honor for a male student.
Unfortunately, the public only saw part of the story. Wallace was the target of vicious verbal abuse on the road and subtle and not-so-subtle racism in Nashville. A day after his graduation, Wallace gave a bombshell newspaper interview in which he described his Vanderbilt years as lonely and unfulfilling. Shortly thereafter, he left his hometown and settled in Washington, D.C., where he has enjoyed a successful career as a law professor.
Maraniss sets Wallace’s story against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Strong Inside is superbly written, hard to put down and fascinating for sports fans and non-sports fans alike.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our Q&A with Andrew Maraniss on Strong Inside.