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Edwin B. Henderson

sports pioneer, Civil rights advocate, Educator, mentor, and author

Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, Lebron James - basketball superstars - they stand on the shoulders of a man who called Highland Beach, Maryland, his summer home.

That man is Edwin Bancroft Henderson. E.B. Henderson is considered "The Grandfather of Black Basketball." And while he transformed the sport, only recently has he received the recognition he deserves.

Dr. Henderson learned the game while attending the Harvard School of Physical Training in 1904. After returning to his home in Washington, D.C., he was turned away from attending a basketball game at the Central YMCA. He recognized the potential in the game, so he went to work.

In December of 1907, Dr. Henderson staged the first known Blacks-only basketball game. Then he started raising money for the city's first YMCA for Blacks.

E.B. Henderson (center) team captain, #9

The sport grew quickly. He formed basketball leagues, organized competitions, trained officials and referees, and even wrote a handbook for Spalding on Black participation in athletics. In 1909-1910 he organized and captained the undefeated 12th Street YMCA team. Standing 5-foot 10-inches, New York Age Magazine called him, "the best center in Black basketball."

After he married Mary Ellen Meriwether, he stopped playing, as she was concerned for his safety.

Dunbar High School team 1922, Coach Henderson (back, right), Charles Drew (front, 2nd from right)

He then focused on coaching, mentoring, promoting fitness and sports for Blacks, and on sports administration.

He was a trailblazer for Blacks in the sport of basketball. In 2013 Dr. Henderson was recognized for his pioneering efforts and inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Ceremony with E.B. Henderson II (far right)
Great-grandson Richard Francis Sewell outside the UDC sports complex

His contributions to sports and to uplifting Black people through sports and competition are so essential, on February 19th of this year, the sports complex at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) was named in his honor.

At the ceremony the university also announced a fundraising effort to raise money for a statue of Dr. Henderson. The statue will stand outside the sports complex.

In recognition of the importance of Dr. Henderson's work, John Thompson III of Monumental Sports (corporate owner of six professional sports teams including the Washington Wizards) presented a check for $200,000 to kick off the fundraising.

But Dr. Henderson's efforts for a level playing field did not stop with athletics.

In 1910 the Hendersons moved to Falls Church, Virginia. Five years later, the all-white Falls Church town council ordered all Blacks to live within a restricted area. The Hendersons were among those who owned property outside that area. Dr. Henderson helped form the Colored Citizens Protection League to fight the new ordinance. They filed a lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law was unconstitutional; Falls Church was forced to rescind the ordinance.

Dr. Henderson formed the first rural branch of the NAACP in 1918. But his actions also brought unwanted attention. He received a letter signed by the Ku Klux Klan that threatened him with physical violence.

Mary Ellen Henderson

He didn't stop and neither did his wife. She headed up membership drives for this successful chapter of the NAACP. They were a team in the fight for civil rights.

He practiced advocacy journalism. Dr. Henderson wrote more than 3,000 letters to the editor in more than a dozen newspapers, working to discredit discrimination and promote dignity for African Americans.

Dr. Henderson is also a published author. At the urging of Carter G. Woodson (Father of Black History Week/Month), Dr. Henderson wrote The Negro in Sports. Published in 1939, it was a comprehensive look at Black athletes and their accomplishments. The book is so significant, it is on display at the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

And then there was his life in Highland Beach. Like so many others during this time, he was drawn to Highland Beach as a respite. Dr. Henderson actually started coming to the beach as a teenager.

Soon he bought a lot overlooking Black Walnut Lake along Bruce Avenue. In the 1920s he built his summer home.

"Loafing Holt" overlooks Black Walnut Lake in Highland Beach

Like most other homeowners, he named his cottage. He called it "Loafing Holt" after a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. There, off his pier, he would spend hours crabbing, fishing, or boating.

E.B. Henderson on the beach

His granddaughter Dena Sewell remembers many fun times on that pier. But her enduring memory is Grandpa fishing from the beach. He would set up shop in the sand with three or four poles and his corn cob pipe - always a corn cob pipe.

Dr. Henderson would spend hours on the beach. And when he wrapped up for the day, he had a "boatload" of fish. Then it was back to his work shed where would clean fish and prepare them to hand out to neighbors.

Dr. Henderson was also engaged in the town governance. In 1921 he chaired the committee that won incorporation of the town of Highland Beach. The bill enacted by the Maryland legislature on April 13, 1922, appointed E.B. Henderson, Haley Douglass, Milton Francis, Osborn Taylor, and Eula Ross Grey as the town's first commissioners. By a vote of the commissioners, Haley Douglass was elected mayor. Dr. Henderson served as Highland Beach's second mayor.

As mayor, among Dr. Henderson's accomplishments in office were surveying the streets and bringing in streetlights. As normal as these things seem today, nearly a hundred years ago in Highland Beach, not everyone was in favor of these initiatives. After three years, Dr. Henderson decided to go back to fishing and crabbing.

Labor Day fun on Highland Beach, E.B. Henderson on the left

Dr. Henderson was also the first president of the Highland Beach Citizens Association. He would referee the Labor Day competitions on the beach.

Taking care of people was in his nature. As a teacher he was a mentor for many, many

young men.

Dr. Charles Drew

From the Dunbar High School class of 1922 there was, Dr. Charles Drew, surgeon and scientist, Dr. William Montague Cobb, physician and physical anthropologist, and Dr. Mercer Cook, diplomat and professor, all of whom had homes in Washington, D.C. and either Venice Beach or Bay Highlands. Dr. Henderson taught and coached Dr. Drew. Young Charles Drew was the captain of the basketball team. Twenty years after graduating Dr. Drew wrote Dr. Henderson a letter of thanks which read in part, "I personally feel a great debt of gratitude to you. I owe you and a few other men like you for setting most of the standards that I felt were worthwhile."

Dr. Henderson was highly educated. After graduation from M Street High School, he attended the Miner Normal School, a predecessor of UDC. He earned a bachelor's degree from Howard University. He attended summer classes at the Harvard Dudley Sargent School of Physical Training for a teacher certification to teach physical education in public schools. He earned a master's degree from Columbia University and a Doctor of Chiropractic for athletic training from the Center of Chiropractic College in Kansas City, Missouri. But it is what he did with his education that changed Washington, D.C., the communities he lived in, and the sport of basketball.

Ed and Nikki Henderson

His namesake and grandson, Edwin (Ed) B. Henderson II and his wife Nikki deserve much credit for ensuring that Dr. Henderson's legacy is remembered. Their work over more than a decade led to Dr. Henderson being inducted into the 2013 class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. At the ceremony Mrs. Henderson said it best, "He is the person who led African Americans on a path from exclusion to domination of the sport of basketball. He laid the foundation. When you're watching basketball games, it's now incumbent upon you to share this history."

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1 Comment

Apr 18, 2023

Great read. I learned much from it

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