Black History Month

Q&A: Edwin Bancroft Henderson II on the 'Grandfather of Black basketball'

Edwin Bancroft Henderson II recounts the achievements of his grandfather and Hall of Famer E.B. Henderson.

Edwin and Nikki Henderson (far left) represent E.B. Henderson at the 2013 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony.

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The NBA today is roughly 75% Black and a large part of American culture. However, the game’s awareness among Black people didn’t begin until an ambitious physical education student made an important contribution.

And with that, E.B. Henderson changed the game, though he didn’t know it then. Neither did anyone else.

Henderson took a trip to Harvard at the turn of the 20th century and learned the game from those who were taught by the ultimate source — Dr. James Naismith. Henderson returned home to Washington D.C., taught the game to Blacks in 1904, and therefore became one of the game’s greatest ambassadors.

He was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, largely helped by the efforts of his grandson, Edwin Bancroft Henderson II, who also authored a new book, “The Grandfather Of Black Basketball: The Life And Times Of Dr. E.B. Henderson.”

The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited. Why is it important for us to recognize and salute pioneers?

Edwin Bancroft Henderson II: The people to be the first at anything are starting points to be recognized. And I think my grandfather has been overlooked for a long time for his contributions to basketball.

He did more than just introduce basketball, correct?

What my grandfather did was lay the infrastructure for Blacks to participate in organized sports. He was a one-man band.

He was promoting the sport, creating the leagues. He started the Eastern Board of Officials to train Black officials so competition would have referees and timekeepers, making sure the rules could be enforced with officials. He set in place a system to allow Blacks to participate in sports.

He was a writer and he wrote the ISAA’s Spaulding Official Handbook that had pictures of Black athletes and Black teams. He even played; put on his shoes and brought Washington its first basketball championship, the Colored Basketball World Championship, in 1910.

I don’t think anybody can do it differently.

How much did the foundation of the game make it possible for what we see today? 

The game has evolved. The game back then is not the game of today. Every generation, there’s a new iteration. What he set in place was the beginning. And the beginning point is always important.

E.B. Henderson’s journey began when he went to Harvard. What was that like for him? 

It’s not like he decided he was going to go to Harvard. He was encouraged to go there by the first woman to be certified in physical education, Anita Turner. She saw in him a bright young man who was interested in sports and encouraged him to go there to gain certification to teach phys ed, which was a relatively new field at the turn of the 20th century.

Why did basketball catch his imagination?

He saw a sport that was adaptable to the skills of African Americans. He introduced the game in 1904. Baseball was very big as well in the late 1800s, as was horse racing with Black jockeys until they blackballed those jockeys. And boxing with Jack Johnson becoming the world champion in 1908.

What were some of the obstacles he faced in white society?

They felt Blacks were inferior, not intelligent enough or bold enough to compete and win against the white teams. But two things: He started this league because James Sullivan, who was head of the AAU, encouraged him because Blacks wouldn’t be allowed to join and compete against white teams.

He said once if the Negro athlete is given equal access to facilities and equal training from competent athletic directors, their white counterparts will find an equal or superior opponent in every endeavor of athletics.

I want to revisit that, because he believed so strongly about the effects of inequality at that time, correct?

He believed that not only with regards to sports, but in science, in education and anything. A lot of what Blacks were up against in segregation was a system which kept them down in poverty. It’s not that the ‘Negro was inferior,’ but they just haven’t been given the same opportunity as whites. Part of that is even true still today.

Basketball was very much his passion. But he was involved in the NAACP and very important issues that affected his community.

In Washington, there were no venues for Blacks to play. There wasn’t even a regulation court. When there was one, it could only accommodate 200-400 in the audience.

So Washington was a fertile territory for him.

I have a chapter that talks about how Washington, between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century, it was a Mecca for Black people. Harlem didn’t open for Blacks until the turn of the 20th century.

Through your time with him as a kid, what was he like?

He was a firebrand. He was witty, great sense of humor. He was patient. A very strong intellect. Great public speaker. And a great writer. He had the whole package. I don’t know anyone who had something bad to say about my grandfather.

The journey in writing this book began shortly after his death. Can you take the beginnings from there?

I inherited his house in Falls Church, Virginia. When I moved in, I found a box in the attic where they’d thrown his file cabinet and in that was my road map to telling his story.

When he was alive, what did he say about the game he helped bring to the masses?

I remember staying up past my bedtime watching the 1969 championship between Boston against the Lakers and the battle between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. I don’t know if my mother knew.

He was a big fan. He understood the game evolved and how generations advanced the game. He wasn’t a purist. He was happy to see how it developed into the sport it became. And it has made a lot of advances since then, particularly around the world and the skill level of the players. It would be great if we could ask him that question directly.

Your work not only helped put him in the Basketball Hall of Fame but also pushed you to write this book. Has it been inspirational?

It’s been a very fulfilling journey. I have felt his presence during this journey. He was never one to toot his own horn, but I felt his horn was worthy of being tooted. So I’ve spent the better part of 20 years on this journey.

I was told it’ll never happen, told it’s not worth doing, writing this book. He deserved a biography that gives context, which is what I tried to do.

Your grandfather obviously didn’t have the chance to see himself enshrined in the Hall, but you did. What was it like to experience that?

It was like I had died and went to heaven. I was around all of these guys I’d been watching for years. It was very exciting, first-class event. I wished so much that he’d been here to be recognized for his efforts and part of my mission was to get him his just rewards for what he did for basketball.

What would he have said in his acceptance speech?

He would be honored and humbled and show grace and humility upon receiving honors. But he never sought honors and recognition. He just did the work.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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