Before Mekhi Lewis, Mark Hall, J'den Cox, Phil Davis, Kerry McCoy, Joe Williams, T.J. Williams, Lee Kemp, Jimmy Jackson, Bobby Douglas, Joe James or Simon Roberts wrestled a single match, there was Harold Henson, who led the way for these men to become wrestling champs simply by stepping out onto the mat at the 1949 NCAA Wrestling Championships.
The 136-pounder from San Diego State University didn't win a national title that year … and, in fact, lost his opening-round match. However, as the first Black wrestler to compete at a national collegiate wrestling championship, Harold Henson made it possible for generations of wrestlers to step up to success in wrestling in high school, college and international competition.
First, a bit of a history lesson: The 1949 NCAAs were just two years after Jackie Robinson became the first Black to compete in Major League Baseball … but five years before the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" segregated public schools were unconstitutional … and eight years before Simon Roberts of the University of Iowa became the first Black wrestler to win an individual national collegiate wrestling championship, claiming the 147-pound title at the 1957 NCAAs at the University of Pittsburgh. (Click HERE to read a profile on Simon Roberts.)
In fact, until the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma reported Harold Henson's pioneering status in their press materials for Black History Month in February 2008, it was generally assumed that the first college matmen of color made their appearance in the mid 1950s … including Simon Roberts, Ellie Watkins for the Iowa State Cyclones, and Kent State's Clarence McNair.
Starting in San Diego
In the 1940s and 50s, young black athletes were often dissuaded from competing in contact sports such as football and wrestling. (This fact is borne out by looking at team photos from high school and college yearbooks of the era.) Yet this was not the case with Harold Henson.
Born on the Choctaw reservation in Oklahoma (his mother was a Native American) in 1923, Harold Henson and his family first moved to Dixon, Illinois (boyhood home of President Ronald Reagan), then, during the depths of the Great Depression, headed back across the country to San Diego, California. Harold was introduced to organized wrestling at San Diego High School (also the alma mater for two-time NCAA heavyweight champ and 1999 world freestyle super-heavyweight champ, Stephen Neal).
"I had been born premature, and had pneumonia when I was young, which made me somewhat scrawny," recalls Harold Henson. "My older brother Al got me interested in wrestling in high school, wrestling for coach Frank Crosby. I weighed just 80 pounds, but it helped to make me stronger, healthier."
"When I went to San Diego State, student coach Armando Rodriguez kept me involved in the sport, encouraged Al and me to work out."
"Back then, State didn't provide much financial backing to the program, hence our having a fellow student as our coach. Harry Broadbent was later brought on as a full-time coach, and really developed the program."
"We participated in tournaments all over the west coast," Harold continues. "I even wrestled at the 1948 U.S. Olympic Trials in Ames, Iowa at Iowa State University."
The road to the 1949 NCAAs
According to a March 1949 issue of The Daily Aztec, the San Diego State student newspaper, "Aztec grapplers wrenched the CCAA (California Collegiate Athletic Association) conference wrestling championship from San Jose State's lofty brow…" winning five of eight individual titles, and placing second in two other weight classes in the Aztec's home gym at San Diego State.
The story continues, "Aztec Hal Henson recorded the only fall of the tourney by pinning finalist Jesse Martinez in 2:43 for the 136-pound title."
In the preview for the trip to the 1949 national championships, the paper reports, "Though the Aztecs are far from favorites in the two-day annual skirmish, by virtue of the terrific competition furnished by Cornell (College) of Iowa (1947 national champ) and Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State), the defending titlist, they are not to be overlooked. Winners of the highly regarded CCAA wrestling crown for three consecutive years, the Aztecs have also captured the UCLA Invitational, the Marine Corps Invitational, and mythical divisional championships for the Olympic tryouts last year."
"Heavyweight Don Arnold, Rigo Rodriguez, and Harold Henson are rated as top contenders in their respective weight classes by (student coach)
'Shadow' Rodriguez …"
"In one of the toughest weights there is, the Aztecs are represented by 136-pound Harold Henson. The 1946 European Area Army champ, Henson is rated as the best pound-for-pound grappler at State."
Armed with the CCAA title, eight of the San Diego State wrestlers headed east on a "two-stop barnstorming tour" (to use the student newspaper's words)… first, for a dual meet at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, then at the 1949 NCAAs held at Colorado State University in Fort Collins on March 25-26.
The wrestlers piled into two cars -- a 1949 Ford, and a '49 Mercury -- and made the trip to the Rocky Mountains. "We usually traveled that way," recalls Harold Henson.
"We stopped every once in a while along the way," Harold adds. "We'd get out of the car and run for a while. It helped us keep our weight down, avoid being cramped up, and stay in shape."
At the 1949 NCAAs
According to Jay Hammond's The History of Collegiate Wrestling, the 1949 NCAAs welcomed 118 wrestlers from thirty-four schools. (By comparison, recent NCAAs have featured about 330 athletes.) It was the first nationals to be held in the Rocky Mountain region.
There were twelve men in Harold Henson's bracket -- the 136-pound weight class -- at the 1949 NCAAs. The SDSU wrestler 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.
Harold drew a bye in the first round. In the second, he went up against Oklahoma State's Don Meeker. The fourth-seeded Cowboy got a 7-3 win over the Aztec grappler.
Harold's first match at the 1949 NCAAs was also his last. Back then, a wrestler who lost in the second round did not make it into the consolation bracket, so, Henson did not have the opportunity to place. (Sixty years ago, 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.)
Harold Henson was in good company; The Daily Aztec reported that none of the San Diego State wrestlers won a match at the 1949 NCAAs.
Wrestling fans attending the national championships at Colorado State that year may not have realized the historical significance of the event as the first time a Black wrestler had competed at in the nearly twenty-year history of the NCAAs. At the time, the seemingly most significant match of the 1949 NCAAs was the heavyweight title bout, which, after ending in a tie in regulation, the University of Minnesota's Verne Gagne was awarded the title on a controversial referee's decision over two-time champ Dick Hutton of Oklahoma State, based on a few seconds' riding time advantage. Despite Hutton's loss, the Cowboys still won the team title, and their 128-pounder Charles Hetrick claimed Outstanding Wrestler honors.
The question of racism has to come up for the man who was the first Back to wrestle at the collegiate nationals… especially in light of the incident at the 2008 NCAAs when someone in the crowd yelled a racial slur when Penn State's Phil Davis celebrated winning the 197-pound title as the first Black wrestler to win a national collegiate crown since 2005.
"There were only two times I experienced racism directly connected to my wrestling career at San Diego," Harold Henson recalls. "Two restaurants refused to serve me and my brother. When this happened, our coach immediately took the team out of the restaurant."
"I never ran into any bigotry in all my wrestling experience. I don't recall any opponent forfeiting a match because of my skin color."
You're in the Army now … and again
Harold Henson's time at San Diego State -- and his college wrestling experience -- was bracketed by military service.
He was inducted into the Army in March 1943 -- at the height of World War II. Harold Henson served in Germany … where he met the woman who would become his wife, Ilse.
"We married 61 years ago," says Harold. "I had to leave Germany because of an Army circular -- regulations -- that required Army personnel who married Germans to leave the country."
"They put me in the U.S. south. I was mistreated there, and wanted out, and, in fact, got out of the Army in July 1947."
"I got my degree in education from San Diego State in 1950."
"After college, I went back into the Army, served in Korea, and earned a bronze star for doing my job."
"I continued wrestling in the Army, winning the All-Army championship in the 136-pound weight class in 1957."
"I retired in 1970 as colonel, after twenty-six years of service. When I retired, I earned the Legion of Merit medal. I'm most proud of that -- and the bronze star from Korea."
Continuing to serve
Upon leaving the Army, Harold Henson didn't hit the shuffleboard court for a relaxed retirement. Instead, he immediately went to work in the Washington, D.C. government, where he worked directly with three mayors in various capacities for twenty-one years, retiring as Deputy Director of Public Works in 1991.
"I was on call twenty-four hours a day," Harold says. "It was a key position."
"The city was controlled by Congress. If you needed funding for a specific project, you had to go to the Hill. I had to work in and around Congress. I was able to use my experience in the Army to understand the complex operations of Congress and get things done."
At the time of the interview, Harold and Ilse were enjoying their golden years in the military retirement community at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. "It's great. We don't go by rank here," said Henson in 2008.
On Jan. 11, 2014, Harold Henson passed away at the Fairfax Military Officers Retirement Village in Virginia. He was 90.
In the seven-plus decades since the 1949 NCAAs, more than 60 Black wrestlers have won individual NCAA wrestling titles. From Simon Roberts in 1957 up through the latest champs, all owe a debt of gratitude to the man who was the first Black to wrestle at the nationals: Harold Henson.