Edwin Bancroft Henderson, ‘father of black basketball’, transformed the sport

When the Brooklyn Nets take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA play-in tournament on Tuesday, they run on the broad shoulders of striker Kevin Durant, the league’s most prominent DC native.

Durant is one of many basketball stars in Washington who has followed a path led by another district legend, Edwin Bancroft Henderson, known as the “father of black basketball” (or sometimes “grandfather”). Henderson, the first black instructor in physical education in the United States, brought the white-dominated sport to Black America in 1907, a century before Durant made his NBA debut in 2007.

“Henderson and his contemporaries envisioned basketball – and sports in general – as a rare opportunity to fight Jim Crow,” Bob Kuska wrote in “Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America’s Game Forever.”

Born in southwestern Washington, Henderson went on to become a teacher, trainer, civil rights activist and author. He learned basketball while studying sports at Harvard University’s Dudley Sargent School of Physical Training. The school was affiliated with the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, where James Naismith had invented the sport just a decade earlier. When Henderson returned to Washington, he organized a basketball league for black players in a city where only whites had access to basketball courts or clubs.

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“What’s sad is that more people do not know the story of EB Henderson, who was a pioneer, a pioneer, a person who was a direct protégé of Dr. Naismith,” said John Thompson III, the former head coach of men’s basketball in Georgetown. University, now Vice President of Player Engagement at Monumental Basketball.

Today, community leaders are taking steps to raise Henderson’s profile. In February, the University of the District of Columbia renamed its athletic complex to Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson Sports Complex. The school also launched Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson Memorial Fund, which will help pay for the renaming, a scholarship, and the creation of a permanent Henderson Memorial on campus. The fund received a $ 200,000 grant from the Leonsis Foundation and Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the owners of Wizards, Mystics, Capitals and Capital One Arena.

On April 1, the Wizards named striker Anthony Gill the first winner of the team’s EB Henderson Award, which recognizes the Wizards player who is most philanthropically active in the DC community.

And last year, Virginia honored Henderson with a state history marker at Falls Church, where he lived from 1910 to 1965 and helped organize the NAACP’s first rural department. Henderson also served as president of the Virginia NAACP.

After finishing his studies at Harvard, Henderson tried to attend a basketball game at an all-white YMCA in DC in 1907 with his future brother-in-law, but they were shown the door by the athletic director. Undaunted, Henderson started the DC-based Basketball Ball League, where his 12th Street YMCA team went undefeated in 1909-10 in competition with local rivals and teams from other cities and won the unofficial title as the Colored Basketball World Champions.

His playing days ended in 1910, when he was 27, at the urging of his new wife, who was concerned for his safety. Henderson’s work continued off the field as he formed the Public Schools Athletic League, the country’s first elementary school sports league for black students, which included basketball, athletics, football and baseball.

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In 1912, Henderson moved to Falls Church, and soon took on racial discrimination there, helping to challenge a local ordinance that limited where black residents could live. After a court ruled that the regulation was unconstitutional, the city council repealed it.

Henderson went on to challenge the discriminatory treatment of African Americans, often through the many newspaper articles and letters to the editor he wrote over the years. In a letter from September 1936 to The Post entitled “The Negro in Sports”, for example, he proclaimed the success of black athletes, such as track star Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

“Right here in Washington, it should be possible for a Jesse Owens or a marble master in the entire city or a Joe Louis to get up through the lists and the tournaments,” he wrote. “When will the Capital of the Nation take up this challenge?”

In 1939, he wrote a book of the same title, “The Negro in Sports,” which he updated in 1950. By the intervening decade, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier of baseball, and black players had returned to the NFL after being shut out. of the league for a dozen years.

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“Henderson resists what could have been the great temptation to rejoice in the sensational success of the Negro boys when they finally got their chance to play in the big leagues,” Shirley Povich wrote in a Washington Post review of the revised edition. “Instead, he pays homage to the American sportsmanship that was finally sufficient to provide equal opportunities.”

Henderson and his wife, Mary Ellen (Nellie) Henderson, moved to Tuskegee, Ala., In 1965 to live with a son, James HM Henderson, who was director of the Carver Research Foundation at the Tuskegee Institute.

“I never consciously did anything to be first. I happened to be on the spot and lived in the days when few people did the things I did,” Henderson said a few years before his death in 1977, at the age of 93. . “But sport was my vehicle. I have always argued that sport is ranked with music and theater as a medium for the recognition of the colored people as we called ourselves in my time. I think the most encouraging, to live down here in Alabama is to see how the black athlete has become integrated into the South. “

Henderson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013 after a campaign led by his grandson, Edwin B. Henderson II, a retired teacher and local historian.

Thompson, the former Georgetown coach, said he recently spoke to the Wizards about Henderson and only one player, center Thomas Bryant, had heard of him. Children today do not know of his legacy, he added.

“And I’m saying I’m completely honest that I did not know about him until a few years ago,” Thompson said. “It’s one of those stories in American history that has been lost. We’re trying to shed light on his story and create an environment where more people can learn about his legacy.”

He noted that Henderson had coached Charles Drew, who went on to become one of the country’s most famous doctors, and mentored Duke Ellington, the famous jazz composer and bandleader, in the district.

“I owe you and a few other men like you for setting most of the standards that I have felt were worthwhile, the things I have lived for and for, and where possible have tried to pass on, “Drew wrote in a letter to Henderson, according to Kuska in” Hot Potato. “

“Knowing him, which I hope will inspire young people when they learn about him, is just how wide a net he threw,” Thompson said. “We’re talking about someone who brought basketball to DC, but he was also a civil rights activist, a skilled writer.”

Penny Greene, a DC basketball historian and founder of the website DCBasketball.com, said that when it comes to the tradition of the sport here – from DC native and Los Angeles Lakers Hall-of-Famer Elgin Baylor to Durant – “it all started with EB Henderson. He fell in love with the game because it was a mix of brains, strength and teamwork. “

“He had swag,” added Greene, who played basketball at Parkdale High School in Riverdale in the early ’70s. “It was something that fascinated him. EB set Washington, DC, on fire at the turn of the century – made young people fall in love with the game of basketball. “

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