Meet Dr. Edwin B. Henderson, the ‘grandfather of Black basketball’ only a few know about

Mildred Europa Taylor June 30, 2023
The renowned 1910, 12th Street Colored YMCA team. Edwin Henderson is holding the basket ball. (Photo YMCA)

“In a normal world, this man could have been anything. He could have been president of the United States. He could have been a Fortune 500 CEO, but he got kicked out of the YMCA for being black, but like most black leaders, that didn’t stop him. He went on to do great things to help his people but also to plant the seeds for what became the modern national basketball association,” President of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) Ronald Mason, Jr. said of Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson days ago at the unveiling of a statue at the school for the man known as the “Grandfather of Black Basketball.” 

Henderson is noted for bringing basketball, which was dominated by whites, to African Americans in Washington, D.C., New York and other East Coast cities and Black America as a whole in the 1900s. Henderson, a coach, teacher, author and civil rights activist, believed that sports ranked with music and the theater as a medium for recognition of Black people, he once said in an interview. 

Born on November 24, 1883, Henderson was an honor roll student at M Street High School in Washington, D.C., where he was also a member of the school’s football, baseball and track and field teams. He graduated in 1904 at the top of his class from a UDC predecessor institution with a degree in education before heading to Harvard University’s Dudley Sargent School of Physical Training and later becoming the first African-American man to earn certification to teach physical education in the U.S.

It was while studying physical education at Harvard University’s Dudley Sargent School of Physical Training that he learned basketball. In 1907, after his studies at Harvard, he attempted to attend a basketball game at a Whites-only YMCA in D.C. with his future brother-in-law, however, they were not allowed to do so. That prompted him to start a basketball league in D.C. for Black players so that his fellow Blacks in the city will get access to basketball clubs and courts.

After starting his Basket Ball League, his 12th Street YMCA team competed with local teams and teams from other cities from 1909 to 1910 and won the unofficial title of Colored Basketball World Champions, according to The Washington Post. Henderson stopped playing basketball at 27 but he continued to contribute to the sport by forming the Public Schools Athletic League, the first public school sports league for Black students in the United States. Henderson also challenged the segregationist seating policy of Uline Arena, the Washington, D.C. sporting facility that housed the basketball games of the Washington Capitols, BlackPast reported

That wasn’t all; he also set up a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Falls Church, Virginia, and wrote many newspaper articles touting the achievements of Black people.

As the first academic researcher of African-Americans in sports, Henderson co-edited the Spaulding sports equipment company’s Official Handbook of the Interscholastic Athletic Association of the Middle Atlantic States between 1910 and 1913 and The Negro in Sports, the first major study of Black athletes and athletics. The coach and author also published The Black Athlete: Emergence and Arrival in 1968, with his estimated number of published articles being more than 3,000, UDC said. The Black American in Sports was his last publication before his death in 1977. Decades after his demise, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013 thanks to a campaign started by his grandson, Edwin B. Henderson II, a retired educator.

“Edwin B. Henderson set the tone and created the infrastructure for African American participation in athletics by creating leagues and associations for black athletes and referees when no such thing previously existed,” Henderson II said in 2008.

Still, many including those in the field of basketball do not know about the legacy of the sports legend and teacher whose students included personalities such as medical pioneer Dr. Charles R. Drew and musician Duke Ellington. Recently, Virginia honored Henderson with a state historical marker in Falls Church, where he established the nation’s first rural branch of the NAACP.

Last year, UDC also renamed its athletic complex the Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson Sports Complex and also launched the Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson Memorial Fund. The unveiling of the life-size statue of alumnus Henderson on Saturday brought together UDC sports alumni, including former Harlem Globetrotter Charles “Choo” Smith, Jr.

“I was always told to honor those who have come before you. We honor Dr. E.B. Henderson for bringing basketball to African Americans in Washington, D.C. It touches my heart because, without him, there is no me,” said Smith, who is building a school for at-risk students in Baltimore. “He brought a game that requires discipline, leadership, and, more importantly, it teaches self-control. He took the time to bring something back and give of himself. He shared his greatness.”

The statue of Henderson was created by Brian Hanlon, founder of Hanlon Sculpture Studio in New Jersey. Sitting on markings representing a basketball court, the statue was erected in front of the Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson Sports Complex on UDC’s Van Ness campus.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 30, 2023


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