December 4, 2017
Professor Perry Wallace’s legacy is embedded in the hall of fame of those who made history not for their personal desire to be a pioneer, but for their courage to bear the unthinkable for the next generation of pioneers. It was in 1967, three years after the Civil Rights Act, when Wallace became the first black basketball player to compete in the Southeastern Conference for Vanderbilt University. He battled racial slurs and death threats with grace, warmth, and wisdom.
That grace and wisdom was always important to Wallace. “Many times people will look at stories like this and they expect everybody to be a hero and to sacrifice everything," he told American University in 2015. "And that's not true. A lot of people who make vital contributions are people who are civil, very decent, and they work with you like a regular person."
Andrew Maraniss, the New York Times best-selling author of Perry’s memoir, Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South, elegantly depicts the unmatched journey of Wallace from basketball courts to the doors of the Justice Department as an environmental law attorney, and to classrooms as a law professor at American University Washington College of Law. "He was an activist in his very existence. He was also one of the wisest, kindest and forgiving people I ever met,” Maraniss said.
Dean Emeritus Claudio Grossman, who worked with Wallace for more than two decades, paid a powerful tribute today.
“I join our community in paying tribute to Perry, a trail blazer and role model for all,” Grossman said. “With unsurpassed dignity, kindness, and determination, Perry reminded us what always should be first: our common humanity. He brought out the best in our community and developed even further our institutional commitment to contribute to justice through education as well as through our own individual actions.”
Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos released a statement on the passing of Wallace over the weekend: “Vanderbilt, the sports world, and the entire country lost a civil rights icon today. We are deeply saddened by the passing of Perry Wallace, who through quiet strength and courage blazed a trail that still serves as a lesson in resilience and perseverance in the face of incredible obstacles.”
Wallace was not only an icon of courage and resilience for so many young athletes across the country, he went on to become an outspoken advocate for civil rights, gender equality, and LGBT rights during his distinguished legal career. Upon graduating from Vanderbilt in 1970 with a Bachelor's Degree in electrical engineering and engineering mathematics, he went on to earn a law degree at Columbia University in 1975. He served as a longtime law professor at American University Washington College of Law, teaching environmental law, corporate law, and finance.
Prior to joining the law school, he was a trial attorney for the United States Department of Justice, where he dealt with natural resources and environmental law. In 1992, he was appointed to the Environmental Policy Advisory Council of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Wallace was 69. He died Friday in Rockville, Maryland, and is survived by his wife, Karen Smyley, and daughter, Gabrielle.
Upon hearing about Wallace’s passing, his colleagues at AUWCL have shared many condolences and memories – you can read more about them here.