Perry Wallace, who took the court for Vanderbilt University 50 years ago as the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference and who later became a Justice Department lawyer and law school professor, died Dec. 1 at a hospice in Rockville, Md. He was 69.
The cause was cancer, said Andrew Maraniss, a family spokesman and author of the 2014 bestseller “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South.”
In 1966, Mr. Wallace led his all-black high school team from Nashville’s Pearl High to an undefeated season and the state championship — the first year Tennessee allowed black and white high schools to compete against each other in sports. But in almost every other respect, he grew up in a world marked by segregation and racial hatred.
“Until my family moved into a neighborhood when I was in high school that had a few white families, there were entire days when I didn’t see a white person,” Mr. Wallace told The Washington Post in 2006. “Frequently, when I did encounter whites, it was in a threatening way — kids riding through our neighborhood brandishing guns, things like that.”
The 6-foot-5 Mr. Wallace was a superb athlete and an outstanding student who was valedictorian of his high school class. Among more than 80 offers to play college basketball, he chose hometown Vanderbilt, a private university with demanding academic standards. He was one of only a few African American students enrolled at the university.
Mr. Wallace was joined on the Commodores’ freshman squad by another black player, Godfrey Dillard. (Freshmen were not eligible to play on varsity teams at the time.) No other school in the Southeastern Conference — the last major collegiate athletic conference to hold out against integration — had a black player.
“You could really hear the catcalls and threats and racial epithets,” Mr. Wallace told USA Today in 2004. “It was clearly racist stuff. They’d cheer when we made a mistake and yell ‘Which one’s Amos and which one’s Andy?’ It was literally chilling. There were times my hands were absolutely cold.”
Dillard, who was from Detroit, failed to make the varsity team as a sophomore, at least in part, the university later admitted, because of his outspoken activism. Mr. Wallace was left to carry on alone.
He appeared in his first varsity game, on the road against Southern Methodist University in Dallas, on Dec. 2, 1967. Two days later, as Vanderbilt faced conference rival Auburn University in Nashville, Mr. Wallace stepped into civil rights history.
Unlike other athletes who became symbols of integration, such as Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mr. Wallace — still in his teens and carrying a full load of classes — had scant preparation for his historic role. His coach, Roy Skinner, concentrated on basketball strategy and offered little emotional support.
Wherever Robinson played baseball, a substantial number of African American spectators turned out to cheer him on. As Vanderbilt’s starting center, Mr. Wallace appeared before uniformly white and often hostile crowds in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Kentucky.
Mr. Wallace had coins and ice thrown at him from the stands. Teammates recalled, according to Maraniss’s book, that a knife was thrown on the floor when Vanderbilt played Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, someone dangled a noose near the Vanderbilt bench.
When the team traveled to Oxford, Miss., to play the University of Mississippi in February 1968, Mr. Wallace was struck in the eye by an opposing player late in the first half.
“It came out of nowhere, a finger or an elbow or something,” he told The Post in 2008. “There was no foul or anything.”
As blood streamed down his face, Mr. Wallace had to continue playing until action stopped when the ball went out of bounds. As he left the game for treatment, Mississippi fans taunted him.
Mr. Wallace returned for the second half, dominating the game and silencing the crowd, as Vanderbilt won, 90-72.
He was a standout player for three years, excelling against such stars as Pete Maravich of Louisiana State University and Dan Issel of University of Kentucky. In his senior season, Mr. Wallace averaged 17.7 points and 13.5 rebounds a game and was named to the all-SEC team. By then, only one other conference school, Auburn, had a black player.
“You know, if you look at being a pioneer logically, it is a ridiculous concept,” Mr. Wallace told The Post in 2006. “How can one person from any group represent everyone in a group? It makes no sense. But I couldn’t intellectualize it; I was living it. I had to deal with the fact that I was a symbol and a representative for my race.”
Perry Eugene Wallace Jr. was born Feb. 19, 1948, in Nashville. His father had a business washing houses, and his mother was a cleaning woman.
Mr. Wallace graduated from Vanderbilt in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He was drafted by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the Kentucky Colonels of the old American Basketball Association, and he played one season for a minor-league professional team in Wilmington, Del.
He worked for the National Urban League before graduating from law school at Columbia University in 1975. He then worked in the office of D.C. Mayor Walter E. Washington (D) and later as a Justice Department litigator.
After teaching law at Howard University and the University of Baltimore, he joined the law school faculty at American University in 1993. He taught environmental law, corporate law and finance until shortly before his death.
Survivors include his wife of 34 years, the former Karen Smyley, and a daughter, Gabrielle Wallace, both of Silver Spring, Md.; and three sisters.
Vanderbilt retired Mr. Wallace’s jersey, No. 25, in 2004. Four years later, he was part of the inaugural class of the university’s athletic hall of fame. A documentary about Mr. Wallace is scheduled for release this month.
Beginning in 1967, the NCAA Rules Committee banned the dunk from college basketball, a rule change often attributed to 7-foot-2 UCLA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor).
In his book “Strong Inside,” Maraniss suggests that Mr. Wallace may also have influenced the change. Known for his spectacular dunking ability, Mr. Wallace made a powerful dunk in a freshman game against Kentucky. As he ran back upcourt, he noticed an older man screaming near the Kentucky bench.
It was longtime Kentucky head coach Adolph Rupp, who was a powerful figure on the committee. Months earlier, Rupp’s all-white team had lost the 1966 national championship to an all-black starting lineup from Texas Western.
In Mr. Wallace’s final college game, against Mississippi State in 1970, he scored 29 points and grabbed 27 rebounds. Near the end of the game, he made a slam dunk, which the referees allowed to stand.
“That’s what I wanted, to make a statement,” Mr. Wallace told NPR in 2014. “The illegal dunk — and that basically said, well, you know, these segregation laws were illegal laws. They were the law, but they weren’t just. And so this is what I think of all those unjust and illegal rules. There it is — slam dunk.”