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InterMat Rewind: African-American Mat History

Mark Palmer

2/27/2008
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

A half-century after the first African-American won an individual college wrestling championship -- and nearly 60 years after the first man of color stepped onto the mat to compete at the NCAAs -- the National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum has created a special exhibit to honor the achievements of African-American wrestlers in the United States. The exhibit, which opened in February 2008 to coincide with Black History Month, will be on display the entire year at the hall of fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma; a traveling version will appear at the 2008 NCAAs in St. Louis.

Let's take a look at some of the important historical events of African-American amateur wrestling, and the individual pioneers who wrote history on the wrestling mat in this country �

The 1940s

Harold Henson: Two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by being the first black to play in Major League Baseball, the first African-American competed at the national college wrestling championships, according to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. The man who made history at the 1949 NCAAs: Harold Henson of San Diego State University. (Note: The Hall of Fame had given the name of the first black wrestler at the NCAAs as being Harold Hanson, but, according to articles in the SDSU student newspaper and yearbook of that era, the wrestler's last name was Henson.)

Harold Henson (Photo/Special Collections and University Archives, Library and Information Access, San Diego State University)
Until the Hall of Fame had disclosed that Henson was the first black to wrestle at an NCAA event, it was widely assumed that the first African-American college matmen made their appearance in the mid 1950s� pioneers such as Simon Roberts at the University of Iowa, Ellie Watkins for the Iowa State Cyclones, and Kent State's Clarence McNair.

According to the San Diego State student newspaper, just before the 1949 NCAAs, Harold Henson won the 136-pound title at the CCAA conference championships, pinning his opponent in the finals. Then, he and his teammates piled into two cars -� a '49 Ford, and a '49 Mercury -- and made the trip to the national championships, hosted by Colorado State University in Ft. Collins.

There were twelve men in the 136-pound weight class at the 1949 NCAAs; Harold Henson was unseeded, while 1947 champ Lowell Lange of Cornell College of Iowa was the top seed, and defending champ Dick Dickenson of Michigan State was seeded second.

Henson drew a bye in the first round. In the second, he went up against Oklahoma State's Don Meeker, who was the fourth seed. The Cowboy got a 7-3 win over the Aztec grappler. That was Henson's first and last match in the tournament; back then, a wrestler who lost in the second round did not make it into the consolation bracket, so, Henson did not place. (Only the top four placers in each weight class earned All-American honors. In the 136-pound finals, Lange shut out Dickenson 6-0 to win his second title.)

After competing at San Diego State, Harold Henson served in the U.S. Army for 26 years, retiring as a Colonel � then became a Senior Executive in Washington, D.C. government. He is now enjoying retirement.

The 1950s

Simon Roberts: The native of Davenport, Iowa achieved a number of firsts in the world of amateur wrestling. In 1954 -- the year that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" educational facilities were unconstitutional -- Simon Roberts became the first African-American to win an Iowa high school state wrestling championship. The Davenport Central senior claimed the 133-pound crown that year, denying Ron Gray of Eagle Grove the chance to become the state's first four-time state champ.

First African-American high school state champs, state by state �

Michigan: Ernie Jones (1948)
Illinois: Ben Crisler (1953)
Iowa: Simon Roberts (1954)
Pennsylvania: Bruce Gilmore (1955)
Ohio: Bobby Douglas (1959)
Oklahoma:: Eddie McQuarters (1961)
Tennessee: Pezavan Whatley (1969)

Three years later, at the 1957 NCAAs at the University of Pittsburgh, Simon Roberts earned the distinction of being the first black to earn an NCAA wrestling title, getting an overtime victory over Ron Gray of Iowa State (yes, the same wrestler he beat at the state finals) to win the 147-pound championship).

Simon Roberts
Later that year, racial tensions exploded at Little Rock Central when nine African-Americans arrived at Arkansas' largest high school, requiring President Dwight Eisenhower to send in the National Guard to help desegregate the all-white school.

The following year, Simon Roberts became the first African-American to win a Big Ten mat title. At the 1958 conference championships hosted by the University of Illinois, the Iowa Hawkeye defeated Indiana's Nick Petronka in the finals at 147.

In the mid 1960s, Simon Roberts became wrestling coach at Alleman Catholic High in Rock Island � the first black coach of any sport at any high school in the Quad Cities, which include Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. One of Roberts' wrestlers at Alleman: Mark Johnson, long-time head coach at the University of Illinois. (To read an InterMat Rewind profile of Simon Roberts, click HERE.)

Art Baker: A product of Pennsylvania, Arthur Baker wrote some significant wrestling history east of the Mississippi River. As a high school wrestler at Erie Academy, Baker became only the second African-American to win a state title in the Keystone State (behind Reading's Bruce Gilmore in 1955), claiming the Pennsylvania prep crown at 165 pounds in 1956; the following year, he won his second PIAA title, this time at 185.

Art Baker (Photo/Syracuse University Archives)
Art Baker headed east to Syracuse University, where he was a two-sport star, excelling on the football field and on the wrestling mat. In 1959, Baker became the first black to win an EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) title. That same year, he became the second collegiate wrestler of color to win an NCAA title, defeating Michigan State's Tim Woodin in the 191-pound finals. 1959 was a banner year for Baker; that year, he was on Syracuse's national championship football team. After winning the 1959 mat title, Baker concluded his college wrestling career to concentrate on football.

The 1960s

Jim Nance: Many folks know James Solomon Nance as a star fullback for the Boston (now New England) Patriots from the mid 1960s into the mid 1970s. However, before the NFL, Jim Nance also made a name for himself at Syracuse University playing football for the Orangemen� and as a heavyweight wrestler.

In an article for Amateur Wrestling News, wrestling historian Jay Hammond describes Nance as "a transforming figure in collegiate wrestling. He brought a level of speed, strength and athleticism to the heavyweight class that had rarely been seen before on the mats. He created the mold for the many great big men that were to come, from Curley Culp at Arizona State (1967 NCAA heavyweight champ) to recent champions like Kerry McCoy of Penn State and Stephen Neal of Cal State Bakersfield." In the same article, legendary Lehigh coach Gerry Leeman proclaimed, "Jim Nance was the best wrestler I saw at heavyweight."

Jim Nance (Photo/Syracuse University Archives)
Jim Nance was a two-time Pennsylvania state champ, winning the heavyweight title in 1960 and 1961 for his high school in the town of Indiana, Pennsylvania. Like fellow Pennsylvanian Art Baker before him, Nance headed to upstate New York to go to Syracuse University to play football and wrestle. As a sophomore, he won the EIWA heavyweight title in 1963. Then, a couple weeks later, at the NCAAs at Kent State University in Ohio, Nance took the heavyweight title by defeating Larry Kristoff of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale in the finals, becoming the first African-American to win a college heavyweight championship. That same year, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his stirring "I Have A Dream" speech to tens of thousands gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

The following season, Jim Nance won his second EIWA crown � but was unable to defend his NCAA title when he was knocked out of contention by Minnesota State-Moorhead's unseeded big man Bob Billberg in the quarterfinals at the 1964 NCAAs. His senior year, Nance claimed his third individual EIWA championship � followed by his second national title. At the 1965 NCAAs hosted by the University of Wyoming, Nance beat Oklahoma State's Russ Winer to become the first black to win two NCAA titles in any weight class. Sadly, after his NFL career, Nance suffered a series of strokes, and passed away in 1992 at the age of 42.

Bobby Douglas: Growing up in Bridgeport, Ohio, Robert Douglas read about Simon Roberts' pioneering wrestling achievements � inspiring him to make some significant mat history of his own. In 1959, Douglas became the first African-American to win a state wrestling title in the Buckeye State, defeating Mike Berry of Columbus-Whitehall in the 112-pound finals. Two years later, Douglas claimed his second Ohio high school title, beating Lakewood's Lance Stephenson in the finals at 127. In addition to his success in wrestling, Douglas also played football and baseball at Bridgeport High.

Bobby Douglas
Bobby Douglas launched his college career at West Liberty State College in West Virginia, where he won the NAIA championship in 1962, and placed second in 1963. He then transferred to Oklahoma State, where he won a Big Eight title in 1965, but sustained an injury at the 1965 NCAAs and did not place.

In 1964 -� the year the Civil Rights Act was signed into law -- Bobby Douglas made some international wrestling history, joining Charles Tribble and Robert Pickens as the first African-Americans to wrestle on a U.S. Olympic team for the Tokyo Games. Two years later, he became the first black from the U.S. to win a silver medal at the world championships. Douglas also served as captain of the U.S. team at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Bobby Douglas had served as an assistant coach at a number of colleges. In 1973, he moved up to the head coaching position at the University of California at Santa Barbara. A year later, he became head coach at Arizona State, where his Sun Devils took the team title in 1988. In 1992, Douglas took the helm at Iowa State, where he coached ten individual NCAA champs, most notably four-time titlewinner Cael Sanderson. Bobby Douglas retired from coaching in 2006.

Joe James: This Chicagoan became the first African-American to wrestle varsity for the legendary Oklahoma State Cowboys, arriving at the Stillwater school in 1960 after having placed third at heavyweight at the Illinois high school state tournament that year.

Joe James (Photo/Cowboys Ride Again)
In his sophomore year -- his first as a varsity wrestler -- James made history by being the first black to win a Big Eight conference wrestling title, in the 191-pound weight class. A couple weeks later at the 1962 NCAAs at Stillwater, the massively muscular Cowboy lost in the finals to cross-state rival Wayne Baughman of the Oklahoma Sooners.

The following year, Joe James moved up to heavyweight, and made a bit more history when he wrestled cross-state rival Ed McQuarters of the University of Oklahoma -- the first time two blacks had competed against each other in the long-running Bedlam series. Later that season, at the 1963 NCAAs, James placed fourth� earning All-American honors for a second straight year. More significantly, at the 1963 Pan-Ameircan Games, James became the first U.S. wrestler of color to win a gold medal.

The 1963-64 season was Joe James' year. He won another Big Eight title, followed up by claiming the heavyweight crown at the 1964 NCAAs at Cornell University, where the Cowboy got a 4-2 victory over Minnesota State-Moorhead's Bob Billberg to become only the second black college heavyweight champ.

Other major milestones of the 60s: In 1960, Ken Moore and Houston Antwine of SIU-Carbondale became the first African-Americans to win NAIA titles� while, that same year, Hallow Wilson won the first AAU championship at heavyweight in Greco-Roman competition. In 1962, Wilson and Rudy Williams were the first blacks to wrestle for the U.S. at the world championships.

In 1964, Don Benning became head coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The following year, for the first time ever, there were two African-American champs at the NCAAs: Iowa State's Veryl Long at 147, and Syracuse's Jim Nance at heavyweight. Two years later, Arizona State's Charles Tribble pinned down the Gorrarian Award for the most falls at the 1966 NCAA tournament.

In 1967, Willie Williams of Illinois State became the first African-American to win an NCAA College Division title. To close out the decade, Iowa State's Carl Adams became the first African-American to earn All-American honors as a true freshman at the 1969 NCAAs.

The 1970s

Lee Kemp: Leroy Percy Kemp Jr. didn't get started in the sport until ninth grade � but more than made up for lost time by achieving much on the mat in national and international competition. Kemp claimed two Ohio class A-AA state titles while at Chardon High, winning the 138-pound crown in 1973 over Jeff Koontz of Ravenna Southwest, and, the following year, the 145-pound championship by defeating Akron Coventry's Chuck Kallay in the finals. Also that year, he won the 1974 Junior Nationals.

Lee Kemp (Photo/University of Wisconsin Media Guide)
It was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that Lee Kemp won national acclaim. As a freshman, Kemp lost to Iowa's Chuck Yagla on a split decision in the 150-pound title bout at the 1975 NCAAs, denying him the opportunity to become the first four-time college wrestling champ. It was the last match Kemp lost in college; he closed out his college career with an incredible 143-6-1 record, winning three consecutive NCAA titles at 158 pounds in 1976, '77 and '78. In fact, at the 1978 NCAAs, Kemp became the first African-American wrestler to win three college championships. (Oklahoma State heavyweight Jimmy Jackson became the second three-time black national champ, winning his third NCAA title about an hour after Kemp.)

Later that year, Lee Kemp became the youngest American to win world freestyle championship (at age 21 years, eight months) � and the first U.S. citizen to win three world titles. He won seven U.S. national titles, four straight World Cup individual championships, and two Pan American titles (1979, 1983).

Today, Lee Kemp is the owner of a Ford dealership in Minnesota.

Other major milestones of the 70s: In 1970, Don Benning coached his University of Nebraska-Omaha team to an NAIA championship. In 1973, Lloyd Keaser became the first African-American to win a gold medal at the world championships; three years later, Keaser was the first black to win an Olympic medal, bringing home the silver from the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In 1975, Fletcher Carr took the helm at the University of Kentucky, becoming the first Division I head coach of color.

The 1976 NCAAs were the first to crown three African-American champs: Wisconsin's Lee Kemp at 158, Iowa's Chris Campbell at 177, and Oklahoma State's Jimmy Jackson at heavyweight. The 1978 NCAAs were the first -� and only -- national championships to feature four black champs: In addition to Kemp and Jackson, Ohio University's Andy Daniels won the 118-pound title, and Montclair State's Ken Mallory claimed the 134-pound crown. In 1979, Lehigh's Darryl Burley was the first black to win an NCAA title as a true freshman.

A time of turbulence: Twenty years after Simon Roberts broke barriers by winning the Iowa high school state title, in a 1973 article in the pre-eminent paper of the state, the Des Moines Register, a number of African-American wrestlers of the era asserted that referee decisions too often went against them, that scholarship opportunities were too scarce, and that there were too few coaching opportunities. Iowa State Cyclone Carl Adams, a two-time NCAA champ at 158 pounds in 1971 and 1972, told reporter Ron Maly, "In the NCAAs at Auburn (in 1971), nine blacks were involved in referees' decisions -- and all nine lost." He added, "You hardly ever see a black referee. I don't recall ever seeing one in any of the NCAA meets I competed in."

John Logan, who placed third at 220 pounds at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1972, claimed, "Wrestling probably has more racism than any other sport. It's a Midwestern white sport with few minorities participating." In the article, Logan cited statistics from an organization called Brothers in Action that showed, of 25 NCAA championship matches that ended in a referee's decision, only two blacks won -- and, in one of those matches, it was two African-Americans wrestling each other.

Jason Smith, a two-time NCAA champ for Iowa State at 167 pounds (1969 and 1970) who later became a medical doctor, is quoted in the 1973 Des Moines Register story: "There has been racism in college wrestling � The racism stretches into recruiting. A lot of disadvantaged black students who are physically and mentally ready for college are not seriously recruited. No strings are pulled for them. Iowa State and the other big schools are exceptions. They will go after black wrestlers."

The 1980s and beyond

In 1980, Howard Harris of Oregon State became the first African-American wrestler to win Outstanding Wrestler honors at the NCAA tournament � perhaps in large part to being one of only a handful of men in the history of the college championships to pin his way through an entire tournament, culminating with a fall scored on Indiana State's Bruce Baumgartner in the heavyweight finals. Speaking of heavyweights � at the 1984 NCAAs, Tab Thacker became the largest man ever to win an NCAA title, tipping the scales at approximately 450 pounds. Thacker went on to appear in movies such as Wildcats and the Police Academy series.

In 1988, Arizona State became the first Division I college program to win a national team title while coached by a black (Bobby Douglas). That same year, Kenny Monday was the first U.S. wrestler of color to win a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics. Of the twenty wrestlers sent to compete at the Seoul Games (freestyle and Greco-Roman), eight were African-American. And, in 1989, heavyweight Carlton Haselrig of the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown earned the distinction of being the only wrestler ever to win a total of six individual NCAA titles: three in Division II, and three in Division I. (At the time, Division II or III champs could then compete at the Division I NCAAs.)

In 1992, Bobby Douglas was named head coach of the U.S. Olympic freestyle team. In 1999, Joe and T.J. Williams became the African-American first brothers to win NCAA championships (Joe in 1996-98, T.J. in 1999-2001).

History continues to be made on the mat in the new millennium. In 2001, Toccara Montgomery became the first African-American to earn a medal at the women's world championships, bringing home the silver. Three years later, Montgomery led the way by being the first black woman to wrestle for the U.S. at the 2004 Athens Olympics. In 2002, Dremiel Byers was the first black from the U.S. to win a Greco-Roman world title (at heavyweight). And, in 2005, the first African-American woman to win a gold medal at the world championships was Iris Smith.

And there's more history to be written �

Mat Facts:

The weight class with the most champs who are African-American? Heavyweight � Nine blacks have won a total of 18 heavyweight titles: Syracuse's Jim Nance (1963, 1965) � Oklahoma State's Joe James (1964) � Arizona State's Curley Culp (1967) � Western Illinois' Jim Woods (1974) � Oklahoma State's Jimmy Jackson (1976-1978) � Oregon State's Howard Harris (1980) � North Carolina State's Tab Thacker (1984)� University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown's Carlton Haselrig (1987-89 -- three Division II titles, three Division I titles) � and Penn State's Kerry McCoy (1994, 1997).

Number of African-American individuals who are NCAA champs: 47

Schools with the most African-American NCAA champs:
Iowa State 7
Oklahoma State 5
University of Oklahoma 5
University of Iowa 4
Ohio University 2
Syracuse University 2
West Virginia University 2

Year with the most African-American NCAA champs: 1978, with four black individuals winning titles (Ohio's Andy Daniels at 118; Montclair State's Ken Mallory at 134; Wisconsin's Lee Kemp at 158; Oklahoma State's Jimmy Jackson at heavyweight)

Thanks to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum, and to San Diego State University for providing reference materials for this story.

Additional Links:

*Please Note: To view the photos, one must be a member of that particular group.

Simon Roberts photo album at Vintage Amateur Wrestling
Jim Nance photo album at NCAA Heavyweight Champs
Joe James photo album at NCAA Heavyweight Champs

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