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Harold Henson, first African-American to wrestle at NCAAs, passes away

Harold Henson as a San Diego State University wrestler... and on wedding day with his wife Ilse
Harold Henson as a San Diego State University wrestler... and on wedding day with his wife Ilse
San Diego State University; Harold Henson family

Colonel Harold Henson, a college wrestling pioneer who was the first African-American to compete at the NCAA championships, passed away Jan. 11, his family reported via email Saturday, Jan. 18. He was 90.

Wrestling for San Diego State University, Henson made history by competing at the 1949 NCAA Wrestling Championships, held at Colorado State University in Fort Collins on March 25-26.

Armed with the 1949 CCAA (California Collegiate Athletic Association) conference title, Henson was one of twelve men in the 136-pound weight class. The SDSU Aztec wrestler was not seeded… but drew a bye in the first round. In the second round, he went up against Oklahoma State’s Don Meeker, losing to the fourth-seeded Cowboy, 7-3. Back then, a wrestler who lost in the second round did not compete in the consolation bracket, so Henson’s first match at the 1949 NCAAs was his last. (The finals featured a battle of champs; 1947 NCAA titlewinner Lowell Lange of Cornell College of Iowa defeated defending champ Dick Dickenson of Michigan State to win the 136-pound crown at the 1949 NCAAs.)

One year earlier, Henson had wrestled at the 1948 U.S. Olympic Trials at Iowa State, according to a 2008 interview with the amateur wrestling website InterMat.

To provide some historical perspective, Henson’s appearance at the 1949 NCAAs came just two years after Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in Major League Baseball… and eight years before University of Iowa’s Simon Roberts made history as the first national wrestling champ of color by winning the 147-pound title at the 1957 NCAAs in Pittsburgh. Until the 1960s, it was rare to see African-Americans wrestle in college.

“There were only two times I experienced racism directly connected to my wrestling career at San Diego," Henson told InterMat in 2008. "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."

Harold Totten Henson was born May 28, 1923 in Bokchito, Okla. on the Choctaw reservation (his mother was a Native American). As an infant, 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. Henson was introduced to organized wrestling at San Diego High School… then continued his mat career at San Diego State along with his older brother Al.

While at SDSU, Henson 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. He left the Army in 1947, and went back to San Diego State, where he graduated with a degree in education in 1950. He then went back to the Army, served in Korea, and continued his wrestling career, winning the All-Army championship in the 136-pound weight class in 1957. Henson retired in 1970 as colonel, after twenty-six years of service in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, having earned the Legion of Merit medal, the Bronze Star, Korean Service Medal, and United Nations Service Medal, among others.

Upon leaving the Army, Henson 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.

Henson is survived by his wife of 65 years, Ilse, four children, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

About the photo: On the left, a close-up of Harold Henson as a San Diego State wrestler (from a team photo from the 1949 Del Sudoeste yearbook), in the gear of that era: trunks, no shirt... on the right, on wedding day 65 years ago, with his German wife Ilse.

Want to know more? Check out InterMat’s 2008 in-depth profile of Harold Henson, and his life on and off the wrestling mat. And, read InterMat's 2007 profile of Simon Roberts, first African-American NCAA mat champ.

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