Two who integrated SEC survived on-court trials, succeeded

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- At halftime, in the dingy visitors' locker room at Starkville, Miss., Godfrey Dillard and Perry Wallace sat beside each other on a plain wooden bench and held hands.

The two Vanderbilt University freshmen were still shaking from what they had just endured. In Maroon Gym, the home of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, they had just become the first blacks to play major college basketball in the Deep South.

From the moment they emerged for pre-game warm-ups until they left the court at halftime, the two 18-year-olds had been barraged by Mississippi State fans who shouted racist slogans, spat at them, threw soft drinks and even threatened to lynch the two young strangers in black and gold trunks.

If their teammates were aware of what had occurred, they didn't say a word. So Dillard and Wallace sat there, trying to listen to the coach review plays with a foreboding sense of having to go it alone.

Today, it is easy to forget how much college basketball has changed since that freshman game was played Feb. 27, 1967. Blacks already were playing the game in other parts of the country and at smaller colleges, but schools in the Southeastern Conference stubbornly resisted. If whites in the South hadn't seen the change coming, they were forced to see it that day. Never again would college basketball be a game played just by white guys.

Perry Wallace, today a University of Baltimore law professor, was startled by the fans' reaction but not completely surprised. He grew up in Nashville and had a good sense of how harsh things could be in the South.

Godfrey Dillard, though, was from Detroit and had grown up in an integrated neighborhood. The events of that day would stay in his mind for a long, long time.

He would recall how he and Wallace hung back as their teammates entered the arena. He also would remember how he and Wallace looked at each other, then embraced for a moment before they, too, stepped onto the court.

The lights of TV cameras blinded them to the hissing, spitting crowd. "These people are crazy," Dillard whispered to Wallace. And years later, he would remember an image so strange that he isn't sure it happened: "Somebody let a chicken loose in the place."

If their memories were different, so was their approach to the game, which Vanderbilt won. Wallace didn't say much but played well. Dillard talked constantly -- to his teammates, to the opposing players, even to the fans. Once, standing at the free-throw line, he waved defiantly to the screaming mob before sinking a foul shot.

Wallace's memories of that day are fuzzier, in part because he would play many more games in front of nasty crowds. Dillard would play only a few. But for all of the differences in their backgrounds and their memories of their time together as ground-breakers, their lives remain connected.

They have shared an anger, but also a conviction: To use the pain of those years as fuel for their own success in a world that in many ways seemed to want them to fail.

Godfrey Dillard and Perry Wallace met four months before the game at Starkville, on a late summer evening in Vanderbilt Hall, a freshman dormitory on the Vanderbilt campus in Nashville. Dillard was unpacking when Wallace knocked on his door.

The two found they liked each other right away and ended up talking all night. They also realized that they were quite different.

Godfrey Dillard was a flashy dresser with bright eyes, a loud voice and a small gap between his front teeth. He had attended a Catholic high school in Detroit, where he was president of the student council and a 6-foot-1 All-State guard.

Perry Wallace was 6 feet 5 and extremely shy. He grew up on Nashville's north side, was valedictorian of his class at all-black Pearl High School and went to church every Sunday. He earned All-State honors in basketball but began to take it seriously only when his ability persuaded him to set aside the trumpet. He had not yet acquired the habit of looking white people in the eye.

The two freshmen talked about many things that night -- the coaches, things to do in Nashville, where to meet girls. They also talked about becoming the first black players in the SEC.

Although both players had received hate mail when they were recruited, the tone of their conversation was optimistic.

"We were up for the challenge," Dillard said.

Said Wallace: "We had great expectations."

Although the game at Starkville gave them a a clear sense of what they were up against on the road, the trips weren't all they had to face. On Vanderbilt's campus, with its magnolias, ancient oaks and manicured lawns, things were different but not much better.

When Wallace's best friend from high school, Walter Murray, stepped into his first class, the professor looked up and made a racist comment.

When Wallace began attending a white church near campus, some of the men in the church told him his presence was bothering some of the older members, who were threatening to leave the church out of their wills. Wallace did not have a car and could not go to a black church across town, but he agreed not to come back.

Usually, though, the racism was less overt.

"It wouldn't be that you would always have people call you 'nigger' and that sort of thing," Wallace said. "It's more so that you might have people doing that, 'Hey, come here, boy. Yeah, you played a pretty good game last night, that was a mighty nice game.' "

Wallace was discouraged, but again he was not surprised.

"These were people who were descendants of people who owned slaves, who owned black people. And there really wasn't much to stand in the way of the attitudes that they had had," he said.

Dillard, however, had been taught to speak out when something wasn't right. That set him apart from the other black students.

"I was the only Northerner there, and although I was certainly familiar with racism, I certainly wasn't familiar with Southern-style racism," Dillard said. "And I guess I was much more upbeat, much more aggressive, much more outgoing than the average student."

Often ignored on campus, the small group of black students at Vanderbilt made friends at Fisk and Tennessee State, historically black colleges in Nashville. Dillard even joined a fraternity at Fisk.

Late in the 1966-67 school year, Vanderbilt formed a Council on Human Relations to explore racial is sues. Both Wallace and Dillard addressed the council, but again Dillard was more blunt.

That summer, Dillard was home when Detroit erupted in one of the most violent riots in U.S. history. At conservative Vanderbilt that fall, he began to act more aggressively on his political leanings.

Early in the semester, the black students founded the Afro-American Society, an organization that still exists under a different name. Dillard was chosen as its first president.

Soon thereafter, Dillard injured a knee in a preseason practice and had to have surgery. He missed his sophomore season.

Wallace, meanwhile, was gaining recognition as a player.

The best game of his career was Feb. 10, 1968, against the University of Mississippi. Ole Miss had canceled its freshman game against Vanderbilt after Dillard and Wallace were recruited, so this was the Rebel fans' first chance to see a black SEC player.

The atmosphere in Tad Smith Coliseum was at least as bad as Starkville had been. Everyone seemed to be whooping, or laughing, or letting out the high-pitched "yip, yip, yip" of the rebel yell. Whenever Wallace had the ball, the noise got louder. When he made a mistake, the fans exploded with laughter.

Late in the first half he was jabbed in the eye while grabbing a rebound. His eye was bleeding, but no foul was called. Wallace didn't return until the second half.

When he did come back, he scored, rebounded at both ends and dominated the game in a way white Mississippians probably had never seen. Although he wasn't a natural ball-handler, at one point he dribbled the length of the court and made a left-handed, behind-the-back pass to a teammate for a layup.

"How I ended up doing all that, I don't know," he said. "It just happened."

Back on campus, civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael and Dick Gregory visited Nashville that spring. Dillard got to spend time with them.

Dillard's political activities culminated in a speech to the faculty of Vanderbilt's College of Arts and Sciences. The issue was race on campus, and the meeting was the students' chance to discuss the problems they faced. The program began with students talking about discrimination in the curriculum, such as racist caricatures in literature.

As president of the Afro-American Society, Dillard gave the overview. His speech touched on the choice between Martin Luther King Jr.'s non-violent approach and more radical solutions called for by people like Carmichael. Dillard told the faculty that "Vanderbilt should be about making that choice toward the integrationist path."

"And the way you do that," he said, "is you make blacks inclusive into your school. You make them truly students, you let them be involved in activities, you remove the segregation, and you let them be participants."

News of the speech spread quickly. Eventually it reached the athletic department. Word was that Dillard was a radical. And was he?

"I was very mild, when I think about it," he said recently.

That rumor was accompanied by whispers that he would never play for Vanderbilt again.

On the second day of practice that fall, Dillard was dropped to the "B" team. He would never return to the varsity squad. Roy Skinner, Vanderbilt's coach at the time, said Dillard just wasn't .. good enough.

"He was not an SEC-caliber player, I didn't think," said Skinner, who now sells insurance in Nashville. "He would have been a good substitute and a good practice player, but he thought he was an All-American.

"He was a little bit slow, that was his biggest problem."

When Dillard heard Skinner's explanation recently, he was incredulous. "Yeah. Slow. Right. I was slow. Unbelievable."

The normally soft-spoken Wallace, who spoke well of Skinner -- "He was a good man that did the best that he could" -- disputed the coach's explanation. He said Dillard would have been an excellent SEC player. "There's not even any doubt about it."

Bitter and depressed, Dillard dropped out of school before the season began and went home.

Dillard's departure left Wallace to integrate the SEC on his own. In three years of varsity basketball, he would compete against one black player in the SEC, Henry Harris of Auburn. As the starting center, Wallace earned second team All-SEC honors as a senior.

The ugliest memories of those years live on in Wallace's mind, although they no longer haunt him. Here is a red-faced, middle-aged white man at the front desk of a Holiday Inn in Gainesville, Fla., giving what he came to know as "the Southern white hate stare." And here is a white friend, back on campus, insisting that Wallace speak to his parents so they could see he was articulate. "Say something, Perry."

The response he got from many blacks he encountered was no more encouraging. Some hinted he was an Uncle Tom.

The scene the two players had witnessed together at Starkville was repeated many times. Although there were constant interviews, and he often was asked what it was like to be the first black player in the SEC, Wallace didn't feel comfortable talking about it.

The lesson of those years was that he was alone.

Dillard, meanwhile, had his own survival to think about. When he got back to Detroit, he was a mess.

"I hated Vanderbilt," he said. "I couldn't believe they did that to me. And so it took me those few years to remove that hate and put Vanderbilt in perspective and not hold the rest of the world and everybody accountable for what they did to me."

He transferred to Eastern Michigan University but did not play basketball because, he said, "My heart wasn't in it."

He then went to the University of Michigan law school. After adding a master's degree in international affairs and a certificate in foreign law, he was a diplomat in Zaire under former President Jimmy Carter. He now represents Detroit in international trade.

After graduation, Wallace took a brief stab at professional basketball, then went to law school at Columbia University. He spent several years brooding about Vanderbilt but doesn't think about it much now.

In 1989, the University of Baltimore made him one of only 36 black tenured law professors at schools that were not traditional black colleges. He teaches corporate law, so when he talks about the SEC these days he is usually referring to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Dillard went back to Vanderbilt only once, and Wallace has rarely returned. Just before Wallace graduated, he talked to a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean about his experiences, saying that he had been alone for the most part.

That surprised some people, especially because Wallace had been chosen the most popular senior. Many people associated with the university felt betrayed. He has been invited back to speak on campus only once.

Wallace's name came up a couple of years ago when a sports editor for the student newspaper suggested that a proposed student recreation center be named for him. The idea was well received, but so far it has not been financed.

Wallace and Dillard still talk occasionally, and sometimes the conversation returns them to their tumultuous days at Vanderbilt.

Dillard says he wishes he hadn't had to sacrifice his basketball career but insists he is no longer bitter. If he had to do it again, he said, he probably would choose basketball or politics, but not both. His mistake was an honest one, though. He had gone to Vanderbilt, he said, seeking "a full college life."

"I wanted to be able to enjoy myself and have a good time, play ball, get my degree and make my college career everything that I thought it would be," he said.

"You know, I wasn't any violent person." The thought made him chuckle, but there was bitterness in the laughter. "I was 18 years old!"

Other blacks who followed Dillard and Wallace onto the courts of the SEC did not fare well afterward. Henry Harris, the first Auburn player, jumped off a New York building and killed himself a few years later. Tom Payne, the first at Kentucky, is in a California prison on his fourth rape conviction. Both Wallace and Dillard say they know why.

"In some ways, being in that position puts you on a fence, where you fall on one side or the other," Wallace said. "And that was clear to me -- it was clear which side I needed to fall on. And I had to fight to do it and to find the strength to do it."

Said Dillard: "I think it's a fantastic story, Perry and I. Because you had two black students, black athletes, from two different backgrounds, at the same place at the same time. One makes it, one doesn't make it. But when you turn around and look at your lives, they both ended up overcoming it.

A5 "So ultimately we won, Perry and I. We both won."

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