Strong Inside (Young Readers Edition): The True Story of How Perry Wallace Broke College Basketball's Color Line

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December 20, 2016
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Perry Wallace was born at an historic crossroads in U.S. history. He entered kindergarten the year that the Brown v. Board of Education decision led to integrated schools, allowing blacks and whites to learn side by side. A week after Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Wallace enrolled in high school and his sensational jumping, dunking, and rebounding abilities quickly earned him the attention of college basketball recruiters from top schools across the nation. In his senior year his Pearl High School basketball team won Tennessee's first racially-integrated state tournament.

The world seemed to be opening up at just the right time, and when Vanderbilt University recruited Wallace to play basketball, he courageously accepted the assignment to desegregate the Southeastern Conference. The hateful experiences he would endure on campus and in the hostile gymnasiums of the Deep South turned out to be the stuff of nightmares. Yet Wallace persisted, endured, and met this unthinkable challenge head on. This insightful biography digs deep beneath the surface to reveal a complicated, profound, and inspiring story of an athlete turned civil rights trailblazer.

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Perry Wallace grew up in Nashville, Tennessee at a time when many things were changing in the south. He had a strong family that believed in education and good behavior, and grew up in a black section of town where he was shielded from some of the racial tensions of the time, although he was able to see glimpses of white culture that seemed appealing to him. He excelled academically and on the basketball court, so when the time came for him to go to college, he had a number of scholarship opportunities. At first, going to a school in the north seemed like a good idea, but when he had the chance to study at Vanderbilt, he saw the advantage of being a pioneer. What he did not foresee was that the worst discrimination was not necessarily the name calling, but the polite distance that was prevalent on the campus. There was certainly name calling when it came to his basketball career, and there were many times when he felt threatened and in danger-- times when his teammates and coaches didn't necessarily support or encourage him. With the companionship of very few other black players, Wallace did his best to do his best for his team and for himself.
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This was a fascinating, very personal account of the effect that the civil rights movement had on one individual. It was also interesting to read about Wallace's teammate and friend, Godfrey Dillard, who was from the Detroit area and who had very different reactions to the treatment he received. While modern readers may be aware of the different protest styles of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, it's all too easy to forget that private citizens also experienced a wide range of philosophies and emotions when it came to how their own personal rights were violated, and refreshing to see these diverse reactions portrayed.

Wallace graduated from college in 1970. I started kindergarten that year, and never remember black classmates being considered remarkable in any way. Granted, I went to school in Ohio, and there are still many improvements in race relations that could be made, but this book made me realize how close my own school experiences were to this time period.

Framing history within the realm of sports is an excellent choice, and Strong Inside is a must purchase for any middle school or high school library. I foresee a lot of National History Day projects on the first black player to play college basketball in the Southern Conference, and I would love to see a similar book done about Harry Edwards!
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