At the 1949 NCAA Wrestling Championships at Colorado State, the San Diego State University 136-pounder made history as the first African-American wrestler to compete at the nationals.
To provide some historical perspective… Henson’s pioneering act was just two years after Jackie Robinson became the first black to play Major League Baseball, and before most college teams had any wrestlers of color. (In the late 1940s, San Diego State’s wrestling program was the exception to the rule; the Aztec mat squad included a number of Hispanic and Asian athletes, as well as blacks and whites.)
Born in Oklahoma, Henson was introduced to wrestling at San Diego High School. As a wrestler at SDSU, Henson won the 1949 CCAA (California Collegiate Athletic Association) conference title… then, along with some of his teammates, headed to Ft. Collins to compete at the 1949 NCAAs. 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, Henson faced 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.
One year earlier, Henson competed at the 1948 U.S. Olympic Trials at Iowa State.
When asked in a 2008 interview with InterMat if he had encountered racism on the mat, Henson replied, “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.”
Henson’s college wrestling career was bracketed by service in the U.S. Army. Before attending San Diego State, Henson served in Germany during World War II (where he met Ilse, who he later married)… then, after graduating from SDSU in 1950, he returned to the Army, where he 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. He later embarked on a career in city government in Washington, D.C.
Harold Totten Henson passed away in January at age 90. However, his pioneering efforts in opening doors for African-Americans to wrestle at the NCAAs live on.
Guest contributor, www.truewrestlinginsider.com