Michael Bressman sends along the sad news that long-time American University law professor Perry Wallace has passed away. Though people in the academy knew Wallace as a scholar of environmental and corporate law, he blazed other paths as a young man. In 1967 he was the first African American basketball player in the SEC, when he played for Vanderbilt University, where he was an engineering student. The Washington Post has a moving reviewing of a Andrew Maraniss' 2014 biography of Wallace, Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South. Cribbing now a little from the review, as it discusses an away game he played in Oxford, Mississippi, at Ole Miss:
Wallace recalls people in the crowd screaming, “We’ll lynch you, boy!”
Shortly before halftime came a blow “so fast that no one knows who threw the elbow,” Maraniss writes. It drew blood, to the delight of some of the spectators. When halftime ended, Wallace was left alone in the locker room with a bag of ice and a swollen eye. He was “shaken not just by the physical blow but by the relentless taunting. . . . He could hear the Ole Miss crowd react when his teammates returned to the court without him: “Did the nigger go home? Where’s the nigger? Did he quit?”
Wallace, who had become the first black player in the Southeastern Conference two years earlier, returned to the game and helped Vanderbilt win, but no one from his team accompanied him back to the court. “He understood more clearly than ever that his journey as a pioneer was one that he would be making alone.”
Wallace was drafted by (my beloved) 76ers but he went a different path -- to Columbia Law School, where he graduated in 1975, then to Washington, DC, in the executive office of Mayor Walter Washington, then to George Washington University where he taught and served as assistant director of the Department of Experimental Programs, and then to the Department of Justice as a trial lawyer for five years. Wallace began teaching at the University of Baltimore in 1985 and moved to American University in 1992.
The Nashville Tennessean has a lengthy obituary, which quotes from one of Professor Wallace's high school teammates on Wallace's strength and optimism: "But through it all, he said that being bitter can eat you alive. And I thought that was so noble of him, because a lot of the bitterness that he might have had during that time has subsided now. It's over and done with and he didn't allow it to change him as a person."