Leon A. Woods Jr., a Sacramento resident who broke racial barriers as a pioneering African American championship player in college tennis, died April 10 of causes related to dementia, his family said. He was 86.
In 1947, Mr. Woods became the first African American athlete to take the court at the NCAA Tennis Championships. As a student at Prairie View College in Texas, he had won the Southwestern Athletic Conference singles titles in 1942, 1943 and 1947. He also won the 1947 conference doubles championship with teammate Harold Adams, also African American.
Despite their national ranking as top tennis players, the pair were barred because of racial discrimination from staying in the dorms and eating in dining halls at the University of California, Los Angeles, the NCAA tournament host. During a pretournament banquet, the players and their coach walked out when a presenter told racist jokes.
"If you've been through years of prejudice and segregation, you're not immune to it but you get used to it," Mr. Woods told an NCAA publication in 2007. "We suffered through it, but we said at least we're breaking the barrier, and that will help someone else."
Mr. Woods settled in Sacramento in 1954 and was one of the first African American chemists hired by the California Department of Fish and Game. He retired from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control in 1987.
Born to a postal worker and homemaker in San Antonio in 1925, Mr. Woods took up tennis as a senior in high school and won the Texas state championship.
"He really wanted to play football, but he was too small," said his wife, Doris. "But he was always very athletic and coordinated."
Mr. Woods received a tennis scholarship to the college known today as Prairie View A&M University, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry. His studies were interrupted during World War II, when he was drafted into the Army Air Corps and earned a Bronze Star. He married his wife in 1951 and had two sons.
He was named president of the Association of California State Chemists in 1974. He served on community boards and commissions and was a longtime member and former alumni chapter president of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
Mr. Woods, who lost his first-round singles and doubles matches at the 1947 NCAA tournament, went on to integrate tennis clubs in the Sacramento area. He belonged to Park Terrace Swim & Tennis Club and played the sport until his health declined in recent years.
In 2007, he was honored by the NCAA for overcoming racial barriers six decades earlier. He downplayed his role as a trailblazer in tennis.
"It's just a matter of going out in the world and trying to do your best with whatever you have and hoping for the best," he said. "You never know how these things are going to work.
"These things become more meaningful when you're recognized by someone else. While you're doing it, you just do it because that's what you think you should do."