The Vanderbilt University Alumni Association will celebrate Perry Wallace, BE’70—who was a renowned figure in the American Civil Rights Movement, a highly accomplished legal scholar and educator and practicing attorney—as the 2017 Vanderbilt University Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. The honor is the highest bestowed to a member of the university’s alumni community.
The Alumni Association Board selected Wallace as the 2017 distinguished alumnus in March of 2017, and planned to hold the official reception in March of 2018. Wallace died Dec. 1 at the age of 69. His family will receive the award on his behalf.
Wallace’s time at Vanderbilt was a historic moment for civil rights in the United States as he became the first African American varsity basketball player in the Southeastern Conference at a time of great racial division throughout the region. He persevered through playing before hostile crowds in gymnasiums across the south to find success as the team captain, member of the All-SEC second team and SEC Sportsmanship Award recipient. He was also selected as the Bachelor of Ugliness, an award given to the most popular male student.
“Perry’s modest desire to play college basketball required uncommon courage,” said Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos. “His time at Vanderbilt was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history and this award is yet another reminder that his legacy as a civil rights icon for our country lives on. As an institution, we continue on a path of racial and social justice that he helped start more than fifty years ago.”
“It was a privilege to have Perry among our alumni community and to honor his deeply meaningful contributions to both our university and society,” said Perry Brandt, president of the Vanderbilt Alumni Association.
Honoring a pioneer
Wallace’s experience is the subject of the New York Times best-selling book Strong Inside by Andrew Maraniss, BA ’92, which has since been adapted into a young adult book of the same name. Strong Inside was selected as the Commons Reading for both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years on The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons, Vanderbilt’s first-year residential community.
His contributions on the court and the importance of his trailblazing career have been recognized through induction into the Vanderbilt Athletics Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. His jersey was retired by Vanderbilt, and he has been named an SEC Living Legend and to the Silver Anniversary All-America team by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. He, former teammate Godfrey Dillard, and the four University of Kentucky players who integrated SEC football, were honored with the prestigious Michael L. Slive Distinguished Service Award during the Dec. 2 SEC Football Championship in Atlanta, Georgia.
Honoring Wallace with the Vanderbilt University Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Award coincides with the 50th anniversary of the season he and Dillard integrated Vanderbilt Athletics. The university recognized that historic season with a series of events and activities, including the premiere of the documentary film, Triumph: The Untold Story of Perry Wallace on campus Dec. 4 at Langford Auditorium.
Vanderbilt also celebrated Wallace in February 2017 during the university’s inaugural Equality Weekend, and he was inducted into the School of Engineering’s Academy of Distinguished Alumni in 2016. During Reunion 2015, his classmates created the Perry E. Wallace Jr. Scholarship in his honor. The need-based scholarship is designated for deserving undergraduate students at the School of Engineering.
Academic and legal career
After graduating from Vanderbilt, Wallace earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1975, where he was awarded a Charles Evans Hughes Fellowship. He also pursued graduate business studies at Columbia University, American University and George Washington University.
For several years Wallace was a senior trial attorney at the United States Department of Justice, handling cases involving environmental, energy and natural resources law. He served a three-year term on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology.
Wallace was a professor at Howard University and the University of Baltimore before joining American University’s Washington College of Law in 1993 as a law professor specializing in environmental law, corporate law and finance. He also served as the director of the university’s JD/MBA dual degree program.
He was a securities arbitrator for the National Association of Securities Dealers, Inc. and the New York Stock Exchange, Inc., as well as a commercial arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association, Inc. He was a member of the National Panel of Arbitrators, National Association of Securities Dealers Dispute Resolution and Advisory Council of the Institute for Transnational Arbitration, and served on the Board of Directors of the Environmental Working Group.
About the Distinguished Alumni Award
Established in 1996 by Vanderbilt’s Alumni Association, the award recognizes an alumnus/alumna whose accomplishments and contributions have had the broadest impact and most positive effect on humankind. Recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Award are celebrated for going beyond their successful vocation to benefit the universal community.