A Man For All Seasons

By Tony McClean, BASN Columnist
Updated: December 21, 2006

“When competent physical directors and equal training are afforded the colored youth, the white athlete will find an equal or superior in nearly every line of athletic endeavor.”

– E.B. Henderson.

NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) — In the history of sports, basketball in particular, there are many pioneers on and off the court who have made it possible for us to enjoy this great game.

Names like Chamberlain, Russell, Erving, and Jordan quickly come to mind when discussing excellence in the sport. Teams like the New York Rens, Boston Celtics, and Harlem Globetrotters are constant reminders of the sport’s glorious past.

However, there are also the silent and somewhat unknown foot soldiers of the past that have helped make the game a national and international happening.

One such man is Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson.

Known by his friends as E.B., Dr. Henderson’s contributions to sports and his commitment to the civil rights movement for African-Americans is something that should be never forgotten.

Quite simply, Henderson is the “Father Of Black Basketball”.

In fact, from 1904 until his death in 1977, Henderson was perhaps the nation’s leading figure during the 20th century in establishing equal rights and opportunities for Black athletes.

Among his many achievements include:
– Serving as the founder of the Eastern Board of Officials (EBO), the first official organization to train black trainers, coaches, and referees.
– Organizing the Inter-Scholastic Athletic Association (ISAA), the first Black athletic conference.
– Developing and organizing the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL), the first in the nation for blacks.
– Campaigned against racial restrictions in sports and advocated for interracial competition.
– Co-edited the Spaulding Official Handbook ISAA from 1910 to 1913.
– Authored “The Negro In Sports” in 1939, the first scholarly history of black participation in sports.

In an era where the finest black athletes were either barred or shunned from performing in athletics, Henderson believed that sports was an arena where African-Americans could unequivocally prove their equality once and for all.

Henderson was born in Washington, D.C. on November 24, 1883.

Even as a youngster, his penchant for athletics and academics were clearly evident. At the age of 12, he organized a youth baseball team and wrote the team’s outcomes for the local newspaper.

Upon graduating from M Street High School, he would attend Miner Teachers College (now known as University of District of Columbia) where he would graduate first in his class in 1904.

That same year, he became a day teacher at nearby Bowen Elementary School and also attended Howard University’s Medical School at night to become a physician. The University dropped its night school program and Henderson was no longer able to attend.

That summer and for the following two summers, Henderson attended summer school at Harvard University and became the first African-American male to become certified to teach Physical Education in public schools.

While at Harvard, Henderson would attended classes during the day while working evenings and weekends as a waiter and a busboy to earn his room and board.

Even then, his commitment to excellence was apparent.

Coming down from Harvard, Henderson introduced basketball to African-Americans in Washington, D.C. Two years later after forming the ISAA, he would begin his professional playing career with one of the more storied teams in the history of black basketball.

Henderson was also captain and star player of the 12th Street YMCA, known to this day as the legendary Washington 12th Streeters. They went undefeated in 1909 and 1910 and captured the national championship among black basketball teams.

During that two year stretch, the 12th Streeters dominated professional basketball by defeating teams from all over the country including the premier teams from New York: the Alpha Physical Culture Club, the Smart Set, and St. Christophers.

After his marriage to Mary Ellen Meriwether in 1910, Henderson promised his bride he wouldn’t play the sport again. However, he would remain in sports but he restricted himself to coaching, planning, organizing, and the chronicling of African-Americans participation in sports.

But his contributions weren’t just regulated to sports. Henderson was also a staunch civic rights activist, especially within his community. His first foray into the legal aspect of civil rights came right after he moved to Falls Church.

His father was forcibly removed from a railroad car in Falls Church bound for D.C. by a white segregationist who wanted his seat. Henderson secured the legal services of Jacob DuPutron, a prominent white Falls Church lawyer, who had been present during the expulsion.

Henderson and DuPutron successfully won the court case. Later, DuPutron was hung in effigy from a light pole in East Falls Church. Despite this, Henderson would go on to achieve one of the defining moment in his life-long civil rights career.

Henderson would help form the first rural branch of the NAACP branch in the United States. He devoted time to promoting the work of the branch both locally in Falls Church, in surrounding rural Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C. and ultimately as state President of the Association.

Even with that, Henderson was never too far away from his first love — athletics. In 1939, he was approached by Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History and Black History Week, to write and chronicle the story of African-Americans in sports.

His book ” The Negro in Sports” was the first compendium ever written about African-American athletics and still stands as the basis for all research in the field.

His second edition, published in 1949, appeared along with a growing national interest in the subject, due to the beginnings of integration of professional sports.

In 1937, Henderson began a 10-year battle to integrate the Golden Glove Boxing Tournament. By 1947, he pressured the Washington Post to stop sponsoring the event as a segregated event. When the Post agreed, integration occurred.

Years later in 1968, Henderson wrote ” The Black Athlete: Emergence and Arrival.” He is also best known for his letters-to-the-editor. In his lifetime he had over 3,000 letters to the editor published.

The Washington Post claimed that he was the most published letter writer in their history. Most of his letters considered the civil rights issues as they related to African-Americans.

In 1974, Henderson was inducted as a charter member into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame, along with such luminaries as Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson, Henry Aaron and Satchel Paige.

Three years later, Henderson died at the age of 93 in 1977.

There is only one honor left that E.B. Henderson truly deserves — induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. His contributions to the sport — both on and off the court — truly merits it.

E.B. Henderson was a true pioneer and innovator for the sport of basketball. He was a man who used sports as a tool to promote racial unity, eliminate segregation, and to advance civil rights for African-Americans.

He lives in the heart of the sports and to those who devote themselves to social change.

NOTE: Follow the link below to view a seven minute film that tells the story of E.B. Henderson.

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