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Edwin Bancroft Henderson (November 24, 1883 – February 3, 1977), widely recognized as the "Grandfather of Black Basketball," introduced basketball in Washington, D.C. in 1904 to African Americans on a wide scale, organized basis. Given that African American players dominate the game of basketball today, it would seem difficult to overstate the importance of the role that Henderson played in basketball history.
Life and career
Henderson’s involvement in basketball – and in the advocacy of organized physical fitness and recreation overall – was overarching. He was a tireless in organizing the first all-black amateur athletic association, the Interscholastic Athletic Association (1906), the Washington, D.C. Public School Athletic League (1906) and the Eastern Board of Officials (1905), a training center that, for decades was the go-to pool for highly qualified African American referees. For 25 years, Henderson was also the appointed head of the Department of Physical Education for the segregated Washington, D.C. school system.
His life is the topic of numerous noteworthy books, papers and proceedings, as well as a doctoral dissertation. Henderson himself was the author of several seminal books about African American participation in sports, including his landmark work, The Negro In Sports (Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, Inc., 1939), as well as a regular contributor in the National Negro Press Association with pioneering magazines such as The Messenger and Crisis. In 1910-1913, Henderson co-authored an annual handbook published by Spalding sports equipment company, entitled,Official Handbook of the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Middle Atlantic States,which chronicled the birth of organized sports among African American along the Eastern seaboard. This publication, which showed African American team photos that competed against each other, was the first of its kind.
From the 1910s through the 1950s, Henderson played and coached basketball, and taught and influenced perhaps hundreds of thousands of Washington area schoolchildren in basketball, including many later luminaries such as Duke Ellington and Charles Drew. In 1973, Henderson was elected Honorary President of the North American Society for Sport History. In 1974, along with Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Bill Russell and Althea Gibson, he became an inaugural member of the Black Athletes Hall of Fame.
Edwin B. Henderson was also a prolific writer of letters to the editor, to local News papers in the Washington, DC and Virginia. It is estimated that Henderson wrote over 3,000 letters to the editor, that were published during his lifetime. According to the Washington Post, no one wrote more letters to the editor than Henderson. The majority of the letters were concerning race relations and the event pertaining equality for African Americans in the United States and the local Washington,DC metropolitan area. Today, the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation and the Washington Post co-sponsor a "Dear Editor" contest to secondary school aged students in Northern Virginia in his honor.
Beyond athletics, Henderson and his wife, Mary Ellen Meriwether Henderson, also an educator, were also determined and successful civil rights activists, fighting against segregation discrimination in housing, education. In 1915, the town council of Falls Church, passed an ordinance to create segregated districts within the town. Dr. Henderson and 8 other member of the community, including Joseph Tinner, formed the Colored Citizens Protective League, and started a letter writing campaign to address the council and this ordinance. Dr. Henderson and his wife, Mary Ellen, were members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (NAACP), in Washington, DC. So, they also wrote a letter to W. E. B. Du Bois to ask to start a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in Falls Church, Virginia. The reply from the NAACP headquarters was that there were no rural branches of the organization. However, they were given permission to operate as a standing committee under the authority of the NAACP.
Dr. Henderson was also the President of the Virginia Council of the NAACP from 1955-1958. A very critical time in Virginia due to the passage of Brown versus Board of Education. Also during this time, Governor Harry F. Byrd, Sr. and the Virginia Assembly held hearings in an effort to dismantle the NAACP in the state of Virginia.
In Washington, DC, in the 1940s,Henderson was also an avid advocate for civil rights. He advocated for interracial competitions in athletic competitions. Among the battles he fought was the picketing of the Uline Arena, because the Uline would not allow African Americans and Whites to compete against each other. The AAU Golden Gloves Boxing competitions were to be held there, until he picketed and encouraged Eugene Meyer, publisher of the Washington Post to withdraw his support of the event at the Uline. The venue was changed to the Washington, DC Armory, where interracial competition could take place.
Henderson died in 1977, at age 93.
In 1982, Fairfax County dedicated its Providence Recreation Center in Edwin Henderson's honor. In 2002, the City of Falls Church named the Falls Church Community Center gymnasium in his honor. And, in 2005, the Mary Ellen Henderson Middle Schooll is named after Henderson's wife, for the many years she fought to bring equality to educational facilities in Fairfax County Public Schools, in Virginia.
In 1999, the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation erected a pink granite (trondhjemite) archway memorializing the founders of the Colored Citizens Protective League (CCPL) which eventually did become the first rural branch of the NAACP.
The Annual Tinner Blues Festival takes place the second Saturday of June in Cherry Hill Park in the City of Falls Church. Many national and area blues musicians play at the event which began in 1993. It is a tribute to the memory of Piedmont Blues guitarist/singer John Jackson, who made his home in Northern Virginia.
- "Edwin Bancroft and Mary Ellen Henderson House National Register of Historic Places Registration Form" (PDF). www.dhr.virginia.gov. Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Retrieved 29 December 2014.
- "Five Direct-Elect Members Announced for the Class of 2013 By the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame" (Press release). Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. February 15, 2013. Retrieved February 16, 2013.
Tinner Hall Monument, Virginia African American Heritage Program