116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — A few years ago Marcella Benson-Quaziena received a call from one of her college coaches informing her something she had never thought about.
She was the first Black woman athlete at the University of Iowa.
'She said, 'I just wanted to let you know in case you get a call or something like that,'' Benson-Quaziena said over a Zoom call last week. 'But that was a couple years ago. Nobody ever said anything. So I thought, oh, maybe I wasn't.'
But she was the first Black woman to letter in a varsity sport at Iowa.
Benson-Quaziena thinks back to 1972, when she arrived on campus as a physical education major from the south side of Chicago. She scans her environment — the teams she played on, and remembers being the first Black woman athlete on all of those teams — basketball, field hockey and fencing.
'I can't remember another Black athlete that I competed against, either in team sports or the individual sports that I participated in,' Benson-Quaziena's teammate and college best friend Martha Lang said. 'I really cannot imagine what that would have been like.'
It's hard to find this history, since women's athletics at Iowa under the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) went heavily uncategorized. When the NCAA assumed control, records were lost and groups like the Iowa Field Hockey Pioneers are trying to piece together old rosters in hopes they can reunite for the 50th anniversary of Title IX next year.
'Marcella was a trailblazer,' said Liz Ullman, the first women's sports information director at Iowa, in the late '70s. 'She was not only the first Black athlete playing intercollegiate athletics, I mean, she was the only Black woman in the whole program. It must have been very challenging for her to maintain her identity and do what she did.'
Benson-Quaziena went to Iowa because it had the best physical education program in the country.
During this time, the women in the physical education department made up most of the rosters among the sports offered. She was going to class six to eight hours a day, then practicing for club and varsity sports in the evenings.
Benson-Quaziena became involved in the National Organization for Women, aiding in the writing of proclamations in support of Title IX to submit at the capital in Des Moines. As a result, women's athletics started to receive funding.
'One of the shifts that I saw that we did was to begin to hire people who were responsible for coaching,' Benson-Quaziena said. 'Before that, almost everybody was a grad student, and they didn't hire coaches.'
In 1973, Iowa brought in Christine Grant to coach field hockey on the varsity level and serve as Iowa's first women's athletics director. She hired Lark Birdsong to coach basketball in 1974. While the team received some funding for travel, Birdsong remembers buying practice jerseys and gym bags with her own money for the team.
'The thing that I tell my players I'm still in contact with is that there's nobody who can take your place,' Birdsong said. 'There's nobody that is the first to start something.'
For a while Benson-Quaziena played basketball, but transitioned into a team manager role as the squad saw taller, more specialized athletes arrive on campus.
She also fenced during her freshman year, fulfilling a childhood dream.
'When I was a kid, there were decent really long tubes of spaghetti that we used to buy,' Benson-Quaziena said. 'What we'd love to do with those tubes after (my mother) took care of them was fence.'
But where Benson-Quaziena thrived was in field hockey. Her size didn't matter and her speed and shooting ability elevated her to a co-captain status. She had only joined at the encouragement of Grant.
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'd yell at me to, 'Speed up,' and I was going as fast as I could,' Lang said with a laugh over the phone. 'She wanted me to play wing, and I didn't want to because I wasn't as fast as she was.'
As two of the shortest athletes in the physical education program, Benson-Quaziena at 5-foot-4, Lang at 5-2, the two just remember a moment in class where they looked at each other and laughed, as if they could read each other's minds.
From there, the friendship blossomed.
Lang became one of the people Benson-Quaziena could lean on when she needed it most.
Racism at Iowa
Lang didn't process what it was like to be a Black woman in Iowa until the two traveled back to Lang's hometown of Muscatine to perform a fencing demonstration in front of the Retired Teachers Association at the Modern Dance Club. The two arrived with Lang's father, who was pulled aside by one of the managers, who told him the club did not serve or allow the membership of Black people.
'I was mortified and angry,' Lang said. 'My father was angry, too. They finally negotiated and we were placed in a back dining room.'
Benson-Quaziena said her memory of the situation is clouded, but she remembers a man telling her they had never had a Black woman at the club.
'It's one of those things where you have to negotiate so many of those kinds of dynamics that if you hold on to all of them, you don't survive,' Benson-Quaziena said.
It wasn't the first time.
One of Benson-Quaziena's two white roommates in her first freshman dorm made it clear she didn't want to live with a Black person. At night, she made loud phone calls to her family over 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 she could transfer out of the room, so Benson-Quaziena found new roommates after the first four months.
The day she left, that roommate walked in to see Benson-Quaziena's belongings packed — and rejoiced, calling her parents with the news. Her other roommate gave her a somber look. She just didn't know what to do, but she knew what was happening was wrong.
'I still at times think about that and I can't believe I stayed at Iowa after that,' Benson-Quaziena said. 'It was just one of the worst experiences I've had.'
Confiding in her friend helped, but Benson-Quaziena also sought out the Black Genesis, a dance group that performed its own mix of dance and theater because even within the physical education department, Benson-Quaziena didn't always feel comfortable.
'Dixie,' a song reminiscent of the Southern Confederacy performed at minstrelsy shows, often played at banquets for the physical education department. Sometimes, she felt invisible, fulfilling tasks asked of members of the department, only to find they only acknowledged when her white peers completed them. As a student-teacher, she was accused of being a racist, which didn't make sense.
These experiences are part of what have fueled Benson-Quaziena's lifelong career in promoting diversity in leadership and providing resources for Black women to take care of both their mental and physical health.
She graduated with a bachelor's degree in health and physical education, then a Master's in sports administration before moving to Gainesville, Fla., to teach health sciences at the University of Florida.
Benson-Quaziena has spent her career in physical and mental health education and organizational development. Now a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., with two more Master's degrees in social work and organizational development and a Ph.D. in human and organizational development, being the first Black woman athlete at Iowa is just a curious fun fact.
She started the National Black Women's Health Organization, now the Black Women's Health Imperative, to help Black women take better care of their physical and mental health in the 1980s. She's worked in hospitals and for the state of Washington as a social worker and organizational consultant to aid in adding more diverse leadership.
Since then, she's kept in touch with Lang, but also grown closer to Birdsong, who lived part-time with Benson-Quaziena while receiving her third Master's degree in information science at the University of Washington. The two bonded over morning coffee chats and weekly dinners.
Those discussions spanned topics like racism, where Birdsong admitted the racial biases she grew up while living in the south and in Colorado, and wanted to know what it was like for Benson-Quaziena to grow up as a Black woman in America.
Lang shared the same conversations with Benson-Quaziena, especially this past summer following the murder of George Floyd. She wants to know: how did a woman from the south side of Chicago find the resilience to make it through the discrimination she faced for not only being a woman, but a Black woman at Iowa in the '70s?
'She's been asking me that question for years, of course she put that on 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 in moving through it and the more you do it the more resilience you develop.'
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Benson-Quaziena was the first Black woman athlete at Iowa, when she was actually the first to letter in a varsity sport when Iowa gained intercollegiate status under the AIAW. Emma Williams, who played basketball in the 1973-1974 season, arrived on campus in 1969, making her the first Black woman athlete at Iowa. The two athletes overlapped in 1973. A follow-up will be written to this story.
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