A namesake helps secure the Hall of Fame legacy for a Falls Church legend.
By David Ungrady • Photography By Erick Gibson
As they were introduced onstage to accept one of the most cherished awards in basketball, Edwin Bancroft Henderson II and Nikki Henderson looked up toward their left into the audience in the upper sections of Springfield Symphony Hall in Massachusetts last September. They smiled and waved proudly to family members who had gathered to share a historic moment at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame’s 2013 induction ceremony.
Their time on stage was brief, lasting only a few minutes, but that mattered little to the Hendersons. Edwin’s grandfather, E.B. Henderson, was finally earning his due as a trailblazer for blacks in basketball. He was one of 12 inductees into the 2013 Hall class. Many in the audience stood and cheered for E.B. Henderson, and for the decade-long effort by Edwin and Nikki to earn the induction for him.
As they worked for E.B. Henderson’s induction, Edwin and Nikki also raised awareness of E.B.’s impact on civil rights progress and his efforts to improve life for blacks in Northern Virginia. Further, if it weren’t for E. B. Henderson, Edwin and Nikki may never have married. And without such a union, you may never have heard of Edwin Bancroft Henderson.
In the summer of 1991, when life could have taken a traumatic turn for Edwin Henderson he sat in a chair at his place of residence in California and pondered his future. He looked up at a picture hanging on a wall. It was of his grandfather, E.B. Henderson, the man he was named after. He thought about his grandfather’s esteemed character and integrity. It felt as if E.B. stared at him disapprovingly, telling him to change the way he was living his life. “I said ‘I can’t do this. If I continued down that path, I would not be talking to you.’”
In 1993 Edwin decided to refocus his life, and part of that involved moving back to his grandfather’s old house in Falls Church and becoming a history teacher in a local school and a community historian. Much of his work has focused on cementing the legacy of his grandfather. E.B. Henderson’s work as a civil rights pioneer during times of deep segregation in the early 1900s, which prompted threats against his life. For safety he carried a gun and did not list his phone number for some 50 years.
After he moved to Falls Church from the District, Henderson, in 1915, helped form the first rural branch of the NAACP in the United States. As one of America’s first black journalists, he wrote stories for numerous publications, such as the Washington Star, and had published thousands of letters to the editor in more than a dozen newspapers, including the Washington Post, to support a cause, often related to civil rights.
E.B. Henderson’s book, “The Negro in Sports,” was the first to document the history of Black sports. “In time, blacks will prove themselves not only equal to white players, but superior,” reads one of E.B. Henderson’s more profound statements.
As a pioneering educator, the Harvard-, Howard– and Columbia-educated Henderson promoted physical fitness to young blacks, changing lifestyles and helping develop a class of premier athletes. He catalyzed basketball for young blacks in the Washington, D.C. area and is considered one of the best players in the early history of black basketball. His efforts in the latter were so profound that he earned the nickname the “Grandfather of Black Basketball”.
“He took the approach that sports was extraordinarily important to African Americans,” says David Wiggins, a sports historian and a professor at George Mason University. “Sports was one of the ways African Americans could prove themselves, to compete and achieve excellence. It gave them a great deal of satisfaction and respect.”
Susan Rayl, associate professor of sports history at Cortland State University, asserts that Henderson, more than anyone else, used basketball as an educational tool for blacks.
“His induction into the Hall of Fame is not just a good thing, it’s absolutely necessary if you want to tell the true history of the game,” says Rayl.
Few can talk with as deep a connection to Henderson as Ben Jobe, who won more than 500 games as a college basketball head coach, mostly at black colleges. In 1949 Jobe was a high school basketball star in Tennessee when John McLendon stopped by his school to promote the basketball program he coached at North Carolina College for Negroes. That day, McLendon was the first person to tell Jobe about E.B. Henderson. “When he had an audience of young black players, he made sure we understood our history of hoops,” Jobe recalls.
McLendon, a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame who died at age 84 in 1999, is considered the first widely accomplished black basketball coach, and has been called the father of black basketball. He also was Jobe’s coaching mentor. The two often talked about basketball history when they shared long drives on recruiting trips while coaching at difference colleges in the mid-1900s. E.B. Henderson was a recurring topic.
It was McLendon who bestowed an indelible title upon Henderson, says Jobe, 81. “He said, ‘If I’m the father of black basketball, E.B. Henderson is the grandfather of black basketball. He saw him as a pioneer and an honorable man who was trying to elevate African Americans through basketball. He referred to him as a saintly man who wreaked of reverence. He talked about him like he was Moses.”
Treasure in the Attic
In the late 1990s, Edwin Henderson was visiting a sister at her house in Highland Beach in southern Annapolis. While cleaning the attic, Henderson spotted a box filled with papers, pictures and letters separated by dividers. “I was able to go through a couple of the things,” says Edwin. “I said to my sister, ‘Let me have this one.’”
One letter in the box came from Charles Drew, who was taught basketball and physical education by Henderson at Dunbar High School in Washington, DC. Drew was a pioneering physician who developed a method for blood transfusions that led to the use of blood banks. In the letter, dated 1940, Drew writes, “I owe you … for setting most of the standards that I have felt worthwhile. Some … give others the courage to go into places which have not been explored.” In the box Edwin also found a copy of the Spalding Official Handbook for the Interscholastic Athletic Association, the first comprehensive accounting of black participation in sports that E.B. helped edit.
Nikki Graves, then a friend who was working on her doctoral degree, spotted the materials soon after she first walked into Edwin’s house in Falls Church. Henderson invited Nikki to the house thinking she would be interested in the documents, in addition to trying to spend more time with her. He took her to a room that included a collection of pictures and papers. “It was [very hot] and I thought, this is a curator’s nightmare, they’re deteriorating.’” she says.
Nikki spent hours cataloging the items and placed them in archival sleeves. In the process, she learned the rich history of E.B. Henderson and his wife Mary Ellen. She also grew closer to Edwin, their romance blossomed and they married in 2007.
Bound for the Hall
In 2003 Edwin invited Nikki to attend the opening gala of the City Museum of Washington, D.C. Several of the Hendersons’ collection had been borrowed by the museum and were included in the exhibit. In the sports section, E.B. was featured. It was at this event that Edwin shared with Nikki his desire to have his grandfather inducted into the Hall of Fame. The following February, Edwin gave a presentation about his grandfather at the same museum, nine months before it closed it’s doors and now the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square. A co-presenter attending told the Hendersons that E.B. should be in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Hendersons decided to submit a Hall of Fame bid. They started gathering supporting materials, compiling a list of seven reasons why E.B. should be elected to the Hall. They reached out to celebrities and historians for support. Those who wrote letters included Washington Mystics President and Vice Chairman Sheila Johnson, Harvard University Professor and author Henry Louis Gates, broadcaster and former DeMatha High School basketball star James Brown and Bill Cosby.
The Hendersons tweaked their presentation, stressing the significance of E.B.’s actions to develop basketball for blacks in a segregated society. They compiled a 138-page document including press clippings, pictures and letters. Beverly Lindsay, a friend and filmmaker, produced a seven-minute promotional video that included a clip of black tennis legend Arthur Ashe acknowledging E.B. in a “Today Show” interview for his work organizing physical education for blacks in Washington. The Hendersons invested about $10,000 to support the bid—$1,000 from Edwin’s parents James and Gwen, $7,000 from fundraising and money of their own. In 2007 they traveled to the NBA All-Star game anticipating E.B. would be announced as a new inductee. A press release had even been prepared promoting the announcement, which did not come. They waited six more years.
In February 2012, Edwin and Nikki heard from the Hall of Fame that E.B. would be inducted in September 2013. Sitting with Nikki last summer at a table crowded with E.B. Henderson documents in the dining room of their house—the same one E.B. had built and lived in in the early 1900s—Edwin reflected on their effort.
“I don’t think you can measure euphoria,” he says, pausing. “The journey’s been worth every penny, has been very rewarding. The future is bright for this story. The Hendersons hope to follow in Edwin’s parent’s footsteps and write a book about E.B. and produce a film.
Strengthening Family Ties
Dr. James H.M. Henderson, who died in 2009, was a renowned plant physiologist, cancer researcher and a former chairman of the Natural Sciences Division of Tuskegee University, where a science building named in his honor opened in May 2013. Edwin says the relationship between he and his father grew stronger after the he moved back to Falls Church.
In 1997, Edwin, with the help of others in Falls Church, founded the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation to preserve the civil rights history of the area. E.B. Henderson fought the implementation of segregated housing in that area. The Henderson House was named a Falls Church historic site due in large part to lobbying done by James Henderson.
Edwin’s father helped secure a letter of support for E.B.‘s Hall of Fame induction from friend and acclaimed black historian John Hope Franklin. He also helped Edwin and Nikki secure the naming of the Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in honor of E.B’s wife, who taught in the first school for blacks in Falls Church in the early 1900s.
Edwin remembers his father trying to emulate E.B.’s success. James, late in life, developed E.B.’s propensity for writing letters to newspapers. Both were notorious record keepers. Edwin retained none of those traits but he shared with his father a mutual respect for E.B.
In retirement E.B. and his wife moved from Falls Church to Alabama in 1965 for the slower lifestyle and to be closer to their grandchildren. Edwin developed a close relationship with E.B., who lived with Edwin and his family until his death in 1977. In his grandfather Edwin saw a determined, overachieving and compassionate man. He kept a journal and noted what and how much he ate and how far he walked, swam and biked. E.B. was dedicated to personal fitness. More than once he walked some 45 miles from his house in Falls Church to a family home in Highland Beach for exercise.
“The whole thing with my father being a scientist and keeping records and data, empirical data, was probably an aspect that he got from my grandfather,” says Edwin.
Edwin gained an appreciation for biographies and the Black experience from his grandfather, reading many of the books E.B. stored in his library. Edwin started to understand the significance of E.B.’s legacy after E.B. showed him memorabilia, photographs and other items from his life. He remembers watching on television Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics battle the Lakers in the 1969 NBA Finals well past his bedtime, sitting peacefully with E.B. with the lights low.
Edwin remembers the excitement his high school football and track coach showed when Edwin told him E.B. was his grandfather. He says he further understood his grandfather’s legacy after meeting Olympic legend Jesse Owens at a Junior Olympic track meet in Georgia. After Owens spoke to the athletes about achieving excellence, Edwin’s coach brought Owens over to meet him. “[Owens] shook my hand and asked how grandpa was,” says Edwin. “My mind was racing with the importance of who my grandfather was. For him to hold my grandfather is such high esteem.”
The connection Edwin felt with E.B. after his grandfather’s death helped guide him through what he called that “life-changing” experience in 1991 while he was living in California. The most he would say about it was that it “was a real troubled time in my life.”
Contemporary references to E.B. Henderson still arouse emotion in Edwin Henderson. On April 8, Edwin held a basketball jersey emblazoned with the name Henderson on the back and Hall of Fame on the front. Sportscaster Jim Nantz handed the jersey to Henderson during a Hall of Fame announcement at the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four in Atlanta. With his wife standing by his side, Edwin acknowledged his wife ‘s effort to secure E.B.’s Hall of Fame bid. “She was the point guard who distributed the ball,” he says.
Then he summed up the legacy of his grandfather, considered a grand playmaker in his day. “He used [basketball] as a civil rights tool,” he says. “ He helped bring about equality and civil rights for African Americans.”