Maraniss on Race and Sports in the South

–submitted by Donna Hurd; photo by Mike Engelberger

Andrew MaranissAndrew Maraniss, son of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss and trailblazing environmentalist Linda Maraniss, and native of Madison, presented a depiction of sports pioneering through the eyes of the first African-American basketball player to join the historically all white Southeastern Conference in college basketball, Perry Wallace.

The biography,  Strong Inside, chronicles the journey of a young athlete who with trepidation, but with great hope, accepted the invitation to join Vanderbilt University men’s basketball team in 1970.  During a time when many southern, college-bound African-American athletes headed north to play for teams that recognized their talent and championship prospects, Wallace took a chance, while knowing the obstacles he faced and stayed at home in Nashville.  Maraniss tells a story of great courage amidst what may have been insurmountable adversity for some.

Wallace tells of the indignations endured during this time; racist taunts, physical affronts and unsportsmanlike cheers upon leaving the game injured.  He still endured.  He felt that people can be treated in three ways: 1) well, 2) poorly or 3) not at all; he experienced all three.  While Vanderbilt’s Chancellor and Chaplain were encouraging and accepting, his student colleagues were not as accommodating.  Persistent isolation outside of the home basketball court, in classes and even in a place of worship, Wallace did not give up or out.  While that treatment was harsh and inhumane, Wallace had the most difficulty with the third type of treatment of not being treated at all.  Noting that having his humanity denied presented the harshest psychological and emotional challenge of them all.

While clearly a gifted athlete, Wallace’s academic aspirations were equally important to him.  When told not to worry about academically performing well, he refused to “trade one plantation for another.”

Upon graduation from Vanderbilt, Wallace took the opportunity to share his story with a Nashville journalist, the story which proved to be detrimental to Wallace and the newspaper, with many subscribers canceling their subscriptions and expressing their enthusiasm with his decision to leave the city.  While he understood that his remarks would not be initially welcomed, he was hopeful with the passage of time that the words would eventually resonate with people and his wish was realized when he returned to Vanderbilt to discuss the book.  After a standing room only discussion about the biography, Wallace was met with tearful regrets and apologies from many of the students who meted out some of the harsh treatment he endured.

Perry Wallace went on to become an attorney with the Justice Department and is currently a Law Professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

Maraniss interviewed Perry Wallace in 1989 for a black history class he was enrolled in at Vanderbilt.  Strong Inside, Maraniss’ first book, was the first sports related book to receive the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

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