“We’re not prejudiced,” the men told him, “but we think you’ll understand why we have to do this.”
It was all quite civil. A peaceful August Sunday morning, the men dressed conservatively in dark suits, speaking quietly but firmly, standing in a small room just inside the entrance to the University Church of Christ.
Perry Wallace had arrived on campus several weeks early, before most of his classmates, to get a few math and science courses out of the way in a special summer Engineering School program before his schedule became crowded with basketball practices. He wanted to get a feel for the campus, to slowly test the waters of integration. New faces, new sounds, new smells, new surroundings. And new twists on the familiar. Perry had been a devout churchgoer each Sunday ever since he had been baptized in the tiny pool at the 15th Avenue Church of Christ. He had taught Sunday School classes, endured the taunts of the tough kids who hung out on the porches of the shotgun houses in the Bottoms as he walked by with his Bible. Attending a weekly sermon was as important a routine in his life as any.
That summer, when Sundays came around, Perry had woken up early, put on a coat and tie, and walked over to the church that Clyde Lee had recommended on one of Wallace’s first recruiting visits. The University Church of Christ was not affiliated with Vanderbilt but sat across the street from campus on the school’s southeast side, a few blocks away from Wallace’s dorm room in the Kissam Quadrangle.
Three or four Sundays, Wallace made the short walk to the chapel, quietly taking a seat in the back, the only black person in the place. A few folks would come by and say hello.
I know who you are.
I saw you play at Pearl.
Good luck at Vanderbilt.
Still, the room seemed cold to Wallace, as if the religion had been sucked out. Church of Christ was a conservative denomination whether the congregants were black or white, no instrumental music allowed, but over on the north side of town at least there had been a little more emotion, the teenage Wallace thought, even singing. Here, it seemed, people were just going through the motions. He sat in the back pews and asked himself the same questions over and over: What are these people doing in here? Where was the spirituality? They might as well be across the street at Burger King.
Uncomfortable as he may have been, Wallace knew this was the first of many tests he would be confronted with as a pioneer. He’d give it a go.
“Just a few years earlier, it would have been very clear to me not to go into that white church, because I was a child of segregation. I knew the rules. But in coming to Vanderbilt, part of the idea was that this was a new day,” Wallace recalled. “This was a new set of relations. They let me move onto the campus. [Alabama governor] George Wallace wasn’t standing at the door. So much seemed to be opening, so I went ahead and went to the church. And it was a lot easier to walk across the street to church than to find a way back to my old neighborhood without a car.”
Wallace made the short walk for the fourth or fifth Sunday, prepared to sit quietly in the back, prepared, once again, to try and figure out how these congregants practiced their religion.
Then they stopped him at the door.
Perry, come with us.
He followed a group of church elders into a side room.
We’re not prejudiced.
We think you’ll understand.
Some people in the church don’t like you being here.
They say they’ll write the church out of their wills if you keep coming.
We can’t have that.
You can’t keep coming.
Do you understand?
You need to go.
“OK,” Wallace said, “I understand.”
He walked out the door, past the worshippers on their way in, and continued back to his dorm room, largely emotionless. The old survival mechanisms handed down through generations of segregation kicked in: at once, he later concluded, he was denying his feelings and accepting the cold reality of the situation.
“There was a dangerous automaticity about the responses to exclusion and segregation,” he recalled. “You would try to suppress it or hide from it even as it was happening. Most of us at that point were not brave heroes, so we just said ‘OK’ in those situations. It was a lot easier to do that.”
He entered his dorm room much earlier than planned, loosened his tie, and sat down on his bed, coming to the realization that maybe America wasn’t changing as quickly as he had been led to believe. He was reminded of the first time he had learned about segregation, as a five-year-old boy stepping onto a city bus with his mom. While his mother paid, he took a seat next to a white man. Immediately, Hattie rushed over and lifted Perry up, ushering him to the back of the bus. “While I still didn’t understand what was going on, and it all seemed quite strange,” Wallace recalled, “I did what Mama said. I played by the rules and, in effect, sang the ‘Song of the South.’”
Excerpt from Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss (Vanderbilt University Press). © Andrew Maraniss, 2014.
For more on Strong Inside, visit www.andrewmaraniss.com. The book is available from bookstores and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Follow Andrew on Twitter @trublu24 and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/andrewmaranissauthor.com.