NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The portion of 25th Avenue South in front of Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium will be ceremonially renamed “Perry Wallace Way” in memory of the trailblazing Vanderbilt student-athlete who integrated SEC varsity basketball in 1967. Wallace passed away on Dec. 1, 2017.
The university worked with Metro Councilwoman Burkley Allen on renaming the portion of the street crossing Vanderbilt’s campus earlier this year to honor Wallace’s legacy, and the Nashville Metro Council approved the measure Tuesday night.
“Perry Wallace was a trailblazer whose courage made a critical imprint on Vanderbilt, the city of Nashville and the nation,” Interim Chancellor Susan R. Wente said. “He pursued excellence both on the court and in the classroom during a time when many people did not want to see him achieve either. We are deeply thankful to the Metro Council and Metro Councilwoman Allen for working with us to celebrate Wallace’s important legacy in this way.”
Perry Wallace Way will extend from West End Avenue to Blakemore Avenue.
Wallace, a standout basketball player and valedictorian at Nashville’s Pearl High School, was recruited to Vanderbilt by head coach Roy Skinner in 1966. Impressed by Vanderbilt’s academic rigor, he accepted. On the freshmen team, he and fellow African American player Godfrey Dillard often endured hostile crowds both on the road and at home, but Wallace nevertheless achieved great success at Vanderbilt. During a game at Southern Methodist University on Dec. 2, 1967, Wallace became the first African American on an SEC basketball team to play in a varsity game. Two days later, he broke another barrier with his conference debut in Memorial Gymnasium against Auburn. When he graduated with a bachelor of engineering in 1970, he was captain of the team, a member of the All-SEC second team and a recipient of the SEC Sportsmanship Award.
“As a student-athlete, Perry Wallace exemplified the Vanderbilt Way,” said Chancellor Emeritus Nicholas S. Zeppos, who knew Wallace well. “Now Memorial Gym will reside on Perry Wallace Way, inspiring and encouraging us all to stand up to the challenges that face us today.”
“Perry Wallace was not only a civil rights icon—he also was an outstanding student-athlete who made history on and off the court,” said Malcolm Turner, vice chancellor for academic and athletics affairs and athletics director. “Not only did he break barriers in the SEC and at Vanderbilt while also excelling academically, he was scouted by major basketball powerhouses from around the country and was selected in the NBA draft. Vanderbilt was privileged to know his many talents.”
After graduating from Vanderbilt, Wallace earned a law degree from Columbia University. He was a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice before entering academia. He became the first African American tenured law professor at the University of Baltimore and was a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law for nearly 30 years prior to this death.
Under the leadership of then-Chancellor Zeppos and David Williams II, former athletics director and vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs, Vanderbilt in 2017 celebrated the 50th anniversary of Wallace being the first African American scholarship athlete to play varsity basketball in the SEC with a series of programming for the campus and the public. The New York Times best-selling biography of Wallace, Strong Inside by Vanderbilt alumnus Andrew Maraniss, was selected as the Commons Reading for Vanderbilt’s first-year students. The university also commissioned a documentary film, Triumph: The Untold Story of Perry Wallace, which premiered on Dec. 4, 2017. On Jan, 3, 2018, the Vanderbilt Alumni Association posthumously awarded him the 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award, and on Feb. 19, 2018, the university marked what would have been Wallace’s 70th birthday with a celebration of his life that included the establishment of the Perry Wallace Jr. Basketball Scholarship, the second university scholarship established in his name.
Wallace and Dillard also were awarded the Southeastern Conference’s Michael L. Slive Distinguished Service Award in 2017. Wallace is a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, Vanderbilt Athletics Hall of Fame, Vanderbilt Engineering School’s Academy of Distinguished Alumni, Nashville Public Education Foundation’s Hall of Fame and Metro Nashville Public Schools Sports Hall of Fame. As a senior at Nashville’s Pearl High School in 1966, he was captain of the undefeated Tiger team that won the first integrated state basketball tournament in Tennessee history.