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Basketball Legend John Wallace '12 Says Tubman Field Study 'Was an Awesome Experience’

June 15, 2022

RELATED STORY: 'Incredible Endeavor': In Harriet Tubman's bicentennial year, alumni and faculty reflect on efforts to rediscover and preserve her legacy

John Wallace stood out among fellow students in the archaeology field course at the Harriet Tubman Home—quite literally. He was 6'8", and not to mention, a celebrity.  

He began the field course on the tail of a whirlwind professional basketball career that included seven seasons with the NBA. He’d left Syracuse University during his senior year in 1996 as a first-round draft pick for the New York Knicks.  

Wallace—who also played internationally—returned to Syracuse to take the remaining courses needed to fulfill a bachelor’s degree. The Tubman course met one of his academic requirements, but it also appealed to him. He’d grown up in nearby Rochester, New York, hearing stories about Tubman’s escape from slavery and her heroic work to save an untold number through the Underground Railroad.  

Students surround a dig site at the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, NY
John Wallace ’12 B.A. (Soc) is shown, front left, next to Billy Owens ’92 during an excavation at the Harriet Tubman Home. Both Syracuse University basketball legends played for the NBA before returning to complete their degrees.

“I wanted to learn more about Harriet Tubman,” he says. “I learned a little about her in school, but not enough.”  

The course proved popular among student athletes during its nearly 20-year run, says Professor Douglas Armstrong. Students enjoyed the hands-on approach. The course also carried six credits and was offered in the summer, when many athletes were on campus for pre-season training.  

“It was an awesome experience—it was so informative. In the process of digging up things from her house, you learned about Harriet Tubman’s history and what she went through. It solidified the notion, to me, that she was the bravest person to ever live.”

John Wallace '12 B.A. (Soc)

Wallace took the field study with fellow Syracuse basketball and NBA alumnus Billy Owens ’92. He remembers the class started early in the morning. At first it seemed daunting, but they quickly came to look forward to it.  

“It was an awesome experience—it was so informative,” he says. “In the process of digging up things from her house, you learned about Harriet Tubman’s history and what she went through. It solidified the notion, to me, that she was the bravest person to ever live.”  

Wallace says it was “awesome” to touch items that Tubman might have handled. He says Armstrong also showed nearby properties that were part of the Underground Railroad. “To see all of that in person was chilling,” says Wallace.  

Nowadays, Wallace splits his time between Connecticut, New York City and regular trips Upstate to visit family and friends from his hometown and SU. He’s still involved with the Knicks and several other professional endeavors, including work with textile and solar firms and occasional analysis for MSG Networks.  

Wallace honors Tubman’s legacy by sharing her story often and by giving his time to uplift others. He’s especially passionate about providing support and mentorship to empower youth, and regularly gives talks at schools, recreation programs and other venues.  

He is also involved with Heavenly Productions Foundation, a charity based in Armonk, New York, whose mission is to help children in need. Wallace helped the organization hand out over 20,000 backpacks filled with supplies to impoverished neighborhoods, from Staten Island to Rwanda.  

“We’re trying to put smiles on kids’ faces,” he says.  

By Jessica Youngman 

Published in the Summer 2022 issue of the Maxwell Perspective


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