This is a guest post written exclusively for The Black Fives Blog by Edwin B. Henderson, II
Last week, 124 years ago, on Nov. 24, 1883, Edwin B. Henderson, my grandfather, for whom I was named, was born in Washington, D.C.
In addition to spending every summer and holidays with my grandfather, he and my grandmother lived the last decade of their lives in their own little apartment attached to our family home in Tuskegee, Alabama.
As a result, I got to know Grandpa pretty well. In my eyes he always stood head and shoulders above other men.
I was impressed by his sheer physical strength and stamina. Even in his 90’s, we went on trips to Florida and we would go deep-sea fishing. And while I was spilling my guts, we were catching 25-30 pound fish.
In some ways, Grandpa was a typical grandfather spinning tales of his youthful bravado.
The difference I noticed was that his stories were peppered with the names that, as a budding sports buff, I both recognized and appreciated.
Two things happened during my youth that made me begin to realize Grandpa was pretty special even beyond our family and community circle.
At a high school track meet that I was competing in, Jesse Owens was the guest speaker. When my coach informed Mr. Owens that E. B. Henderson’s grandson was in the audience, he stepped down from the stage, strolled over to me, shook my hand and said he was honored to meet the grandson of E.B. Henderson.
I then began to look at my grandfather in a different light, and began to listen more intently to his stories of his exploits.
Then, in 1974, when Grandpa was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in New York, in it’s inaugural class alongside the likes of Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Joe Louis and Bill Russell, I was so proud beyond compare.
It was here that I realized that Grandpa was recognized as a giant among these men who, in my opinion, were themselves the giants of American Sports.
Grandpa died in February of 1977, at the ripe old age of 93.
It has been 30 years since his death. But my question lingers: What did Grandpa mean to the success of these giants — esteemed athletes with whom he spent his professional life, as a player, coach, referee, historian, writer, organizer, promoter, administrator, mentor and visionary?
Edwin B. Henderson set the tone and created the infrastructure for African American participation in athletics, by creating leagues and associations for black athletes and referees when no such thing previously existed.
He promoted intercity play between segregated African American leagues, for a greater social meaning.
And then, Grandpa chronicled and documented the African American experience in sports and athletics to help preserve our proud achievements.
What else did Grandpa do?
- credited with being the first to introduce basketball to African Americans on a wide scale organized basis, in 1904 in Washington, D.C., earning him Grandfather of Black Basketball status;
- organized the Inter-Scholastic Athletic Association (I.S.A.A.), the first black athletic conference;
- organized and promoted intercity play between black basketball teams along the Mid-Atlantic coast, especially between New York and Washington, D.C.;
- organized the Washington 12th Streeters basketball team at the 12th St. YMCA in Washington, D.C., which won the 1909-1910 Black Basketball World Championship, as well as Howard University’s first varsity basketball team, which won that title the following season;
- co-edited the Spalding Official Handbook for the I.S.A.A. from 1910 to 1913, the first comprehensive account of black participation in all major sports;
- founded the Eastern Board of Officials, the first official organization to train black referees;
- organized the Public Schools Athletic League (P.S.A.L.) in Washington, D.C., the first in the nation for blacks;
- campaigned against racial restrictions in sports and advocated for interracial athletic competition;
- authored The Negro In Sports in 1939, the first scholarly published history of black participation in sports.
In an era where the finest black athletes were either barred or shunned from performing in athletics, my grandfather believed that sports was an arena where African-Americans could unequivocally prove their equality once and for all.
Edwin B. Henderson, II teaches United States History at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church, VA. He is founder and president of Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, a public service organization that promotes awareness of Northern Virginia’s African American civil rights pioneers.
Photographs courtesy of Black Fives, Inc. except Harvard photograph courtesy Harvard University Archives.