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No better time to honor black mat pioneers Henson, Roberts than now

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On this day when we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., there’s no better time to honor African-American college wrestling pioneers Harold Henson and Simon Roberts.

Henson, whose passing was first reported here Sunday, opened doors for generations of wrestlers by being the first African-American to compete at an NCAA wrestling championships, as a 136-pounder for San Diego State, in 1949.

In his wrestling career, Roberts was a man of firsts, twice. He became the first black state champ in Iowa in 1954… then, at the 1957 NCAAs in Pittsburgh, was the first wrestler of color to win a national title, at 142 pounds, for the University of Iowa. (He later went on to become the first African-American high school wrestling coach in the Quad Cities, at Alleman High School in Rock Island, Ill. Among his wrestlers: Mark Johnson, NCAA All-American and Olympian who went on to become head coach at University of Illinois.)

At this point it might be helpful to provide some historical perspective to show what kind of trailblazers Henson and Roberts were in college wrestling.

Henson wrestling at the 1949 NCAAs at Colorado State was just two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color bar as the first black to play Major League Baseball, as shown in the 2013 movie “42.”

As for Roberts, he won his high school state title the same year as the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schools in its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision. His NCAA championship was earned the year that federal troops were ordered to make it possible for black students to attend Little Rock Central High School for the first time.

Bringing it back to wrestling… Henson and Roberts were rare figures when they competed in the sport. Thumb through college yearbooks of the 1940s and 50s (as I have for my wrestling research), and it was very rare to see any African-Americans in the wrestling team photos at most schools. In fact, during this era, one might see a solitary black wrestler in the team picture… if any. (For example, Oklahoma State, one of the all-time great wrestling programs, did not have a wrestler of color until Joe James arrived on campus in 1960. Roberts was one of the first African-Americans to wrestle for the Hawkeyes; by contrast, Henson was one of many non-white wrestlers at San Diego State in the late 1940s.)

I had the honor of interviewing both men by phone separately. Each said they were unaware of any instance of biased officiating, or opponents who engaged in unsportsmanlike conduct or talk, or refused outright to wrestle them because of their skin color. However, each did have stories of being refused service in restaurants while with their teams.

College wrestling has come a long way since Henson and Roberts wrestled. These two pioneers opened doors for generations of wrestlers of color to enter the sport and succeed. For instance, legendary Olympic wrestler and coach Bobby Douglas has said that learning of Roberts’ NCAA championship spurred him to become the first black wrestler to win a state title in Ohio, in 1959.) In fact, more than 50 African-Americans have won NCAA Division I titles since 1957.

For their individual accomplishments – and for making college wrestling more inclusive for all -- it would seem the time is right that the National Wrestling Hall of Fame could welcome Harold Henson and Simon Roberts to join their honorees.

About the photo: The image shows Harold Henson (left) and Simon Roberts as college wrestlers, in the gear of their respective schools of that time: trunks, no shirts. The NCAA changed the rules to require shirts in the mid-1960s.

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