Not many people know that Marcella Benson-Quaziena was the first black woman to receive a letter in Iowa. This is his story.

IOWA CITY – A few years ago, Marcella Benson-Quaziena got a call from one of her college coaches informing her of something she had never thought of.

She was the first black female athlete at the University of Iowa.

“She said, ‘I just wanted to let you know in case you get a call or something,” “Benson-Quaziena said on a Zoom call last week. “But that was a few years ago. No one ever said anything. So I thought, oh, maybe I wasn’t.

But she was the first black woman to enroll in college sport in Iowa.

Benson-Quaziena remembers 1972 when she arrived on campus as a physical education student from South Chicago. She scans her surroundings – the teams she played on and remembers being the first black athlete of all of those teams – basketball, field hockey and fencing.

“I don’t remember another black athlete that I competed against, either in team sports or individual sports I competed in,” said Martha Lang, Benson-Quaziena teammate and best friend in college. “I really can’t imagine what that would have looked like.”

This story is hard to find, as women’s athletics in Iowa under the umbrella of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) has not been categorized. When the NCAA took control, records were lost and groups like the Iowa Field Hockey Pioneers are trying to replenish old rosters in hopes they can reunite for Title IX’s 50th anniversary next year.

“Marcella was a trailblazer,” said Liz Ullman, the first director of women’s sports information in Iowa, in the late 1970s. “She wasn’t just the first black athlete to practice intercollegiate athletics. , I mean, she was the only black woman in the whole show. It must have been very difficult for her to keep her identity and do what she did.

Sporting career

Benson-Quaziena went to Iowa because it had the best physical education program in the country.

During this time, women in the physical education department made up most of the lists among the sports offered. She went to class six to eight hours a day, then trained for club and college sports in the evenings.

Benson-Quaziena became involved with the National Women’s Organization, helping draft proclamations in support of Title IX to be submitted in the capital city of Des Moines. As a result, women’s athletics began to receive funding.

“One of the changes I saw was to start hiring people responsible for coaching,” said Benson-Quaziena. “Before that, almost everyone was a graduate student, and they didn’t hire any coaches.”

In 1973, Iowa hired Christine Grant to coach college field hockey and become Iowa’s first director of women’s sports. She hired Lark Birdsong to coach basketball in 1974. While the team received funds to travel, Birdsong recalls buying training jerseys and duffel bags with her own money for the team.

“What I say to my players who I am always in contact with is that there is no one who can take your place,” said Birdsong. “There is no one who is the first to start something. “

For a while, Benson-Quaziena played basketball but moved on to a team manager role as the team saw taller, more specialized athletes arrive on campus.

She also did fencing in her first year, making a childhood dream come true.

“When I was a kid we would buy really long, decent spaghetti tubes,” Benson-Quaziena said. “What we would like to do with these hits after (my mom) takes care of them is a fence.”

But where Benson-Quaziena thrived is in field hockey. Her size didn’t matter and her speed and shooting ability elevated her to co-captain status. She had only joined in with Grant’s encouragement.

It became her favorite sport and the one she got to play with her best friend, Lang.

“She was a natural athlete, as fast as the wind, and she was yelling at me, ‘Speed ​​up’, and I was going as fast as I could,” Lang said, laughing over the phone. “She wanted me to play on the wing, and I didn’t want to because I wasn’t as fast as her.”

As two of the shortest athletes in the physical education program, Benson-Quaziena at 5ft 4in, Lang at 5-2, the two just remember a moment in class when they looked at each other and laughed. , as if they could read the other’s mind.

From there, the friendship blossomed.

Lang became one of the people Benson-Quaziena could lean on when she needed it most.

Racism in Iowa

Lang didn’t understand what it was like to be a black woman in Iowa until the two returned to Lang’s hometown of Muscatine to perform a fencing demonstration in front of the Retired Teachers. Association with the Modern Dance Club. The two arrived with Lang’s father, who was dismissed by one of the managers, who told him the club did not serve or allow black membership.

“I was mortified and angry,” Lang said. – My father was angry too. They finally negotiated and we were placed in a dining room at the back.

Benson-Quaziena said her memory of the situation was clouded, but she recalls a man telling her that they never had a black woman at the club.

“It’s one of those things where you have to negotiate so many of these kinds of dynamics that if you hang on to all of them you don’t survive,” Benson-Quaziena said.

It was not the first time.

One of Benson-Quaziena’s two white roommates in her first freshman dorm has made it clear that she doesn’t want to live with a black person. At night, she made loud phone calls to her family on the phone, complaining about Benson-Quaziena, saying she didn’t want her sisters to go to college and end up like her, living with a black roommate.

Lang told Benson-Quaziena that she could leave the room, so Benson-Quaziena found new roommates after the first four months.

On the day she left, this roommate walked in to see Benson-Quaziena’s things packed – and rejoiced as she called her parents to break the news. His other roommate gave him a dark look. She just didn’t know what to do, but she knew what was going on was wrong.

“I still think about it sometimes and can’t believe I stayed in Iowa after that,” Benson-Quaziena said. “It was just one of the worst experiences I have had.”

Confiding in her friend helped, but Benson-Quaziena also sought out the Black Genesis, a dance group that featured their own mix of dance and drama because even within the physical education department, Benson-Quaziena didn’t feel not always comfortable.

“Dixie”, a song reminiscent of the Southern Confederation performed in minstrel shows, often performed at banquets for the physical education department. At times, she felt invisible, completing tasks asked of members of the department, only to find that they were only recognized when her white peers had completed them. As a student teacher, she was accused of being a racist, which made no sense.

These experiences are part of what fueled Benson-Quaziena’s career in promoting diversity in leadership and providing resources for black women to take care of their mental and physical health.

She received a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education, followed by a master’s degree in sports administration before moving to Gainesville, Florida to teach health sciences at the University of Florida.

Help others

Benson-Quaziena has dedicated her career to physical and mental health education and organizational development. Now a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, with two other masters in social work and organizational development and a doctorate. In human and organizational development, being Iowa’s first black athlete is just a curious, fun fact.

She started the National Organization for Black Women’s Health, now the Black Women’s Health Imperative, to help black women take better care of their physical and mental health in the 1980s. She worked in hospitals and for Washington State as a social worker and organizational consultant to help add more diverse leadership.

Since then, she has kept in touch with Lang, but has also grown closer to Birdsong, who lived part-time with Benson-Quaziena while receiving her third Masters in Information Science at the University of Washington. The two bonded over morning coffee chats and weekly dinners.

These discussions focused on topics like racism, where Birdsong admitted the racial prejudices that she grew up living in the South and Colorado, and wanted to know what it was like for Benson-Quaziena to grow up in as a black woman in America.

Lang shared the same conversations with Benson-Quaziena, especially last summer following the murder of George Floyd. She wants to know: How did a woman in South Chicago find the resilience to overcome the discrimination she faced not just because she was a woman, but a black woman in Iowa in the 70s?

“She’s been asking me this question for years, of course she’s asked you,” Benson-Quaziena said, laughing over the phone.

“I’m not one of those people who thinks resilience can be taught. I think resilience comes from your experience going through it and the more you do it the more resilience you develop.

Correction: A previous version of this History incorrectly stated that Benson-Quaziena was Iowa’s first black athlete, when she was actually the first to write in varsity sport when Iowa achieved intercollegiate status under the AIAW. Emma Williams, who played basketball in the 1973-74 season, arrived on campus in 1969, making her Iowa’s first black athlete. The two athletes overlapped in 1973. A sequel will be written to this story.

Comments: (319) 398-8387; [email protected]

Marcella Benson chats with Iowa field hockey coach Margie Greenberg in this undated photo. Benson, now Benson-Quaziena, was Iowa’s first black female athlete. (Courtesy of Marcella Benson-Quaziena)

Marcella Benson-Quaziena, Iowa’s first black female athlete

Marcella Benson in action in the undated photo. (Courtesy of Marcella Benson-Quaziena)

Marcella Benson, now Benson-Quaziena, in a game when she was Iowa’s first black female athlete. (Courtesy of Marcella Benson-Quaziena)

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