The 1922 Dunbar Champs. E.B. Henderson is far right.
The 1922 Dunbar Champs. E.B. Henderson is far right. Credit: Photo courtesy Henderson family

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Edwin Bancroft “Ed” Henderson II has spent the last few years campaigning for his late grandfather’s induction in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

That would be Edwin Bancroft “E.B.” Henderson, who was 93 when he died in 1977. The elder Henderson led a life that would fascinate anybody interested in D.C. sports or racial history. But his grandson says you don’t need to know everything about the old guy to find him qualified for the Hall.

Really, you only need to know this: “He’s the father of black basketball,” says Ed, a Falls Church resident.

That hasn’t been enough so far. The Hendersons found out last month that Hall voters turned down E.B., who was first nominated in 2006. As per that body’s Cheney-esque policies, no reasons for the rejection were disclosed. (But this has to hurt: Dick Vitale, with a .366 career winning percentage as an NBA coach, is among this year’s finalists. Inductees will be announced in early April.)

Nominations are only active for three years. So, with this latest rejection, the Henderson camp now must re-start the crusade for the patriarch’s induction. The family plans to soldier on.

“I got involved [in the Hall of Fame effort] because what he had done is no longer in the collective memory, because what we’re talking about happened over 100 years ago,” Ed says. “Today, people are interested in the money and celebrity and entertainment value of the game. But they’ve forgotten about the history, how it all began. We were talking to people who wanted to do a story on basketball in Washington, D.C., and they thought it started some time in the 1940s. Basically, my grandfather was 40 years beyond what they were looking at. We just have to get more people to know what he did.”

Looking over E.B. Henderson’s bio, it’s tough to see what more Hall voters could ask of an applicant.

“He has to get in,” says Claude Johnson, founder of the Black Fives, a Connecticut company that has researched the history of black basketball and markets wares such as throwback uniforms to promote it. “E.B. Henderson is the guy who introduced basketball to African-Americans on a wide basis. Without him, who knows if it ever would have been embraced as it was.”

Henderson was born in 1883 in Southwest. He attended the M Street School, a secondary school for blacks. He went to a two-year college, Normal School No. 2 (No. 1 was for whites only), then completed his undergraduate studies at Howard. He took a job with the D.C. Public Schools, but beginning in 1904, he spent the first of three summers studying physical recreation at Harvard.

While in Cambridge, Mass., Henderson was first exposed to basketball, which had been invented only about a decade earlier by James Naismith at a YMCA about 85 miles west of Harvard Square in Springfield.

Naismith’s game traveled with Henderson when he returned to his segregated hometown after that first Harvard excursion.

There were already traces of the sport in D.C.’s white community: Vintage ads in the Washington Post show Walford’s Sporting and Athletic Goods stores selling “basket balls” at its two downtown locations in 1904.

But the game hadn’t yet reached Henderson’s students at the M Street School, where he became the first black phys-ed teacher in the nation. Kids at the other local rec centers where he worked were unfamiliar with basketball, too. And Henderson found that they didn’t take to this new sport without a lot of prodding: In his 1939 book, The Negro in Sports, Henderson recounted that his students initially considered basketball “the sissy game, as was tennis in the rugged days of football.” (Arthur Ashe, in his own 1988 book, Hard Road to Glory, called Henderson’s memoir “the first definitive historical review of black sports.”)

But Henderson kept at it. In a paper about him published in 1999 in the academic journal Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, historian David K. Wiggins reports that Henderson had trained enough players and officials by 1905 to form a league of six teams to play at the True Reformer Building, a black dance hall on U Street NW later famous as the launching spot of Duke Ellington’s first band.

“Before E.B. Henderson organized those teams,” says the Black Fives’ Johnson, “there were probably five or six African-American players, and no teams. Forming those teams took things to an entirely different level.”

Henderson also put together a team at M Street, which was renamed Dunbar Senior High in 1916, and then created the Public School Athletic League (PSAL), the first athletic conference in D.C., white or black, for student teams to play in. Among his players at Dunbar: Charles Drew, the future pioneer in blood research. (The Henderson family has a letter that Drew, captain and star of Dunbar’s 1922 team, wrote to his old coach in 1940 thanking him for “setting most of the standards that I have felt were worthwhile, and the things I have lived by and for.”)

Henderson also played the game, and well. He was captain and coach for a team based at the 12th Street YMCA. The Black Fives’ research found that Henderson’s 1910 team went undefeated and won the Colored Basketball World’s Championship.

“The championship game was played in a casino in Brooklyn on Christmas Eve in 1910, and the 12th Streeters won,” says Ed Henderson.

He quit as a player after that championship, when he got married and moved the family to Falls Church. But he stayed on as head of athletics for D.C. Public Schools from 1926 to 1954.

Henderson campaigned constantly for equal rights, on and off the job, in and out of athletics.

Henderson organized protests of Uline Arena, which didn’t allow blacks to attend basketball games or the Ice Capades or most other nonboxing events when it opened in 1940 (Cheap Seats, “Arena Football,” 11/10/2006). But in 1948, after years of black picketers carrying signs with slogans such as “We Oppose American Hitlerism” outside the coliseum’s doors, the building’s segregationist policies were overturned. Henderson used the same tactics to integrate the National Theatre.

He was also certainly in the running for the title of most prolific letter-writer in the history of the Washington Post. His battles for justice are chronicled in the paper’s archives.

In a 1944 letter asking for D.C. voting rights, Henderson wrote that race was obviously behind the failure of the city’s residents to be granted such rights and asked, “Can anyone believe that had the Capital remained in Philadelphia the citizens there would have been disfranchised as are Washingtonians?”

In 1947, he wrote that the rules segregating the city’s parks were not only wrong but also unenforceable. His letter included a story in which a cop told black kids who were playing baseball just outside the gates of whites-only parks that they could be arrested for playing in the street. So the group took their game into the park even though rules forbade it. “[T]hey and the white kids have been playing ever since in accord,” Henderson wrote.

The same archives reveal what Henderson was up against. His 1952 letter campaigning for the integration of D.C. schools drew a response, also printed in the letters section, from a Post reader identified as “Allene Janz from Washington.”

Integration of the schools, Janz wrote, would serve no “useful purpose for the community at large.”

“Classes could not be arranged or facilities set up to meet the present demands for two races on an entirely different evolutionary level,” Janz wrote.

Two years later, Henderson retired from city schools after 50 years on the job. That happened to be the same year that the schools and schoolboy athletics were integrated here.

And it also happened to be the year Elgin Baylor graduated from Spingarn and went out west to become a basketball icon. Baylor’s successes for the first time put a national spotlight on D.C.’s black hoops scene, a thriving scene that Henderson had launched.