(This is Part II of a two-part series. Here is Part I.) 

In 1904, a young African American teacher from the racially segregated District of Columbia public school system attended Harvard University’s Summer School of Arts and Sciences to receive state-of-the-art training on how to become a physical education instructor. His name was Edwin B. Henderson.

The renovated court at Hemenway where Henderson learned basket-ball.

The renovated court at on the top floor of the Hemenway Gymnasium where Edwin B. Henderson learned basket-ball in the summer of 1904. (Claude Johnson)

The summer school physical training courses were still being taught by Dudley Allen Sargent, the leader of the physical fitness movement in America.

The sport of basketball itself traces back to Sargent and to this historic facility, through his connection to Luther Gulick who was James Naismith’s supervisor in Springfield.

But did you know that the history of African American involvement in the game also traces back to Hemenway? Yes, it is through Henderson, the 1904 summer student.

Edwin Henderson at Harvard

Harvard University’s Summer School of Arts and Sciences student Edwin B. Henderson (right) with some of his classmates and instructor Dudley Allen Sargent (left). (Harvard University)

That summer at the School of Arts and Sciences, Henderson was one of only two black persons in the class of 114 students. 

From the Summer School of Arts and Sciences Catalogue of Students in 1904:

Though these courses are designed especially for instructors engaged in teaching through the winter, and to supplement courses given during the school year, they are open also to all students and others seeking their personal improvement either by exercise or in learning how to look after their physical welfare.

The exercises are conducted in the Hemenway Gymnasium, on the adjoining grounds, and in the lecture halls of the University, under the direction of Dr. D. A. Sargent, who takes part in both the theoretical and practical instruction.

And the course included a state-of-the-art curriculum:

Primary and Grammar School Exercises, Calisthenics and Light Gymnastics, including drills in Chest Weights, Wooden and Iron Dumb-bells, Facings and Marching in Military Drill, Free Developing Exercises, Elementary Fencing, Dancing Steps, and Swedish Free Exercises. Elementary Heavy Gymnastics, including four series of progressive exercises on Low and High Horizontal Bars, Floor Parallel and Suspended Parallel Bars, Vaulting Horse, Buck, Rings, and Mat. Gymnastic Games, Delsarte Exercises, and Voice Training, expert instruction in Swimming, Diving, and Basket-ball.

Henderson instantly saw the potential of this relatively new game called “basket-ball.”

Hemenway Gymnasium exterior

Hemenway Gymnasium exterior. (Claude Johnson)

After finishing Sargent’s course he returned home to promote the game. However, according to Henderson, “basketball was at first considered a ‘sissy’ game, as was tennis in the rugged days of football.”

Not for long. Within five years there were dozens of African American teams and the game’s popularity among blacks soared.

Interestingly, Sargent came to believe that Gulick and Naismith had created a monster:

A positive menace to the continuance of basket ball as a sane and rational game is its tendency to become so rough, fast, and furious as to be highly injurious to the health and morals of both players and spectators. The hard floor, brick walls, restricted area, crowded room, vitiated air and close proximity of the excited partisans watching the game – all tend the develop an unnatural strain and tension to which our high-strung youth too quickly respond. Is it a wonder that exhausted nervous systems, overworked hearts, congested lungs, crippled limbs, and irritable tempers have frequently resulted from this forced and unnatural style of play?

Henderson is credited with being the first to introduce basketball to African Americans on a wide-scale organized basis and is known as the “Grandfather of Black Basketball.” He was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.