“Henderson and his contemporaries envisioned basketball – and sport in general – as a rare opportunity to fight Jim Crow,” Bob Koska wrote in his book Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Born Black Basketball and Changed America’s Game Forever.
Henderson, who was born in southwest Washington, became a teacher, coach, civil rights activist, and author. He learned basketball while studying physical education at Harvard University’s Dudley Sargent School of Physical Education. The school was affiliated with the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, where the sport was invented by James Naismith 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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“The sad thing is that more people don’t know the story of E.B. Henderson, who was a pioneer, pioneer, and someone who was a direct protégé of Dr. Naismith,” said John Thompson III, a former men’s basketball coach at Georgetown University. The university, now Vice President of Player Engagement at Monumental Basketball.
Today’s community leaders are taking steps to raise Henderson’s standing. In February, the University of the District of Columbia renamed its sports complex the Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson Sports Complex. The school has also launched the Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson Memorial Fund, which will help pay for the renaming costs, a scholarship endowment and the creation of a permanent Henderson memorial on campus. The fund received a $200,000 gift from the Leonsis Foundation and Monumental Sports & Entertainment, an ownership group of Wizards, Mystics, Capitals and Capital One Arena.
On April 1, the magicians appointed striker Anthony Gill The first winner of the EB Henderson Team Award, which honors the Wizards’ most active player in philanthropy in the DC community.
And last year, Virginia Henderson honored a landmark in Falls Church, where he lived from 1910 to 1965 and helped organize the first rural chapter of the NAACP. Henderson also served as president of the Virginia NAACP.
After completing his studies at Harvard, Henderson tried to attend a basketball game at the white-only YMCA club in the capital in 1907 with his future son-in-law, but the athletic director showed them the door. Undeterred, Henderson started the DC-based basketball league, unbeaten his 12th Street YMCA team in 1909-10 competing with local competitors and teams from other cities and winning the unofficial title of Colorful 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 Association, the nation’s first public school athletic league for black students, which included basketball, athletics, soccer, and baseball.
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In 1912, Henderson moved to Falls Church and was soon dealing with segregation there, helping to challenge a local law restricting where black residents could live. After the court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional, the city council overturned it.
Henderson has continued to challenge the discriminatory treatment of African Americans, often through numerous newspaper articles and letters to the editor he has written over the years. A September 1936 letter to The Post titled “The Negro in Sports,” for example, described the success of black athletes such as track star Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
“Here in Washington,” he wrote, “it should be possible for Jesse Owens, a citywide marble champ, or Joe Louis to get out through the rolls and tournaments.” “When will the nation’s capital face this challenge?”
In 1939, he wrote a book with the same title, “The Negro in Sports,” which he updated in 1950. In the following decade, Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier, and black players returned to the NFL after being eliminated from the league for two ten years.
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“Henderson is resisting what would have been a great temptation to gloat at the exciting success of the Negro boys when they finally had their chance to play in the major leagues,” Shirley Povich wrote in a review of the revised edition in the Washington Post. “Instead, he pays tribute to the American sportsmanship that has finally contented itself with creating a level playing field.”
Henderson and his wife, Mary Ellen (Nely) Henderson, moved to Tuskegee, Ala., in 1965 to live with his son, James H.M. Henderson, who was director of the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee Institute.
“I didn’t consciously do anything to be the first. But the sport was my car,” Henderson said a few years before his death in 1977, at the age of 93. I have always argued that sports are arranged with music and theater as a way to identify with people of color, as we call ourselves today. I think the most encouraging thing, living here in Alabama, is seeing how the black athlete has been integrated into the South.”
Henderson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, following a campaign 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, Thomas Bryant, had heard of him. He added that today’s children do not know about his legacy.
“And to say that, quite frankly, I didn’t know about him until a couple of years ago,” Thompson said. “It’s one of those stories that got lost in American history. We’re trying to shine a light on his story and create an environment where more people can learn about his legacy.”
He noted that Henderson trained Charles Drew, who went on to become one of the country’s most famous doctors, and supervised Duke Ellington, a famous jazz composer and conductor, in the area.
“I owe it to you and a few men like you for setting the most standards I felt were worthwhile, the things I lived for and where I tried to convey them as best I could,” Drew wrote in a letter to Henderson.
“One thing that I hope will inspire young people as they learn about it is how wide the net he casts,” Thompson said. “We’re talking about someone who brought basketball to D.C., but who was also a civil rights activist, and an accomplished author.”
D.C. basketball historian Benny Green and founder of DCBasketball.com said that when it came to the sport’s traditions here — from Los Angeles Lakers Elgin Baylor to Durant — “It all started with EP Henderson. He fell in love with the game because it was A mixture of brains, strength and teamwork.”
“It was booty,” added Green, who played basketball at Barkdale High School in Riverdale in the early 1970s. “It was something that piqued his interest. EB set Washington, D.C. on fire at the turn of the century – making young people fall in love with basketball.”