WTOP Book Report: The D.C. man who brought basketball to Black athletes

This story is part of the WTOP Book Report series written by Terik King. Read more of that coverage.

Author Edwin B. Henderson II discussed his biography The Grandfather of Black Basketball: The Life and Times of Dr. E.B. Henderson with the WTOP Book Report. (Courtesy Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, author photo courtesy of Edwin B. Henderson II)
Author Edwin B. Henderson II speaks to WTOP's Terik King about his biography The Grandfather of Black Basketball: The Life and Times of Dr. E.B. Henderson.

Edwin Bancroft Henderson II has penned the first contemporary biography of his grandfather, Dr. Edwin Bancroft (E.B.) Henderson, a pivotal figure in the history of African American basketball.

The book, titled The Grandfather of Black Basketball: The Life and Times of Dr. E.B. Henderson (Rowman & Littlefield), provides an unprecedented look at the life of the man credited with introducing basketball to African Americans on a wide-scale, organized basis, set against the backdrop of Civil Rights Era history in the D.C. area.

D.C. native Dr. E.B. Henderson, born in Southwest to parents who had been enslaved, was a trailblazer in the world of sports and civil rights.

“He went to the Washington, D.C. colored schools,” said Henderson II. “And Washington, D.C. was very unique in that it had a colored school system.”

While attending M Street High School, Henderson would enthusiastically participate in sports, write about the subject for the Washington Evening Star and “he would spend time in the Library of Congress, and in the galleries in the Capitol. He was always a very serious minded guy,” said Henderson II.

Henderson waited tables to attend summer sessions at Harvard University’s Dudley Sargent School of Physical Training, and it was there that he learned the fundamentals of the game of basketball — invented in 1891 by Canadian Dr. James Naismith.

It’s also where he recognized the potential of athletics, especially basketball, as a public health initiative and a means for young African Americans to gain college scholarships and challenge the prevailing notions of racial inferiority.

“My grandfather introduced basketball when the sport was in its infancy and laid the infrastructure for African Americans to play and compete on an equal basis with their white counterparts,” said Henderson II in an interview with the WTOP Book Report.

Graduating from the Sargent School in 1904, the same year basketball was introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair, Henderson became the first African American male certified to teach physical education in the U.S. He returned to D.C., and to M. Street High School, where he began to teach basketball to his students.

Dr. E.B. Henderson teaching basketball to students. (Courtesy of Edwin B. Henderson II)

Two years later, Henderson formed the Interscholastic Athletic Association (ISAA), the first African American athletic league.

“It wasn’t just about introducing the sport but creating a competitive entity where people played seriously against each other,” Henderson II said.

Henderson also founded associations to train and organize Black officials and referees. He coedited the first Spalding publication that highlighted African American achievements in sports and wrote The Negro in Sports.

Beyond athletics, he was instrumental in founding the first rural branch of the NAACP, advocating for school desegregation, and holding executive board positions in multiple NAACP branches.

Reflecting on the early days of basketball, Henderson II highlighted the sport’s initial perception as being predominantly played by women. “There was a girls’ team demonstrating the sport at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and it wasn’t until later that basketball gained popularity among men,” he said.

Henderson II believes his grandfather would be proud of the present-day NBA: “He moved the game from exclusion to domination by African Americans. From a time when there were no Blacks allowed in the NBA to the present, where the sport is dominated by Black athletes. … I think he would be proud.”

In addition to capturing Henderson’s historical significance, The Grandfather of Black Basketball tells, through letters, the story of a family man who married his sweetheart, Nell, on the way to Harvard and raised his family in the idyllic setting of Highland Beach, Maryland. 

Enshrined in the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, Henderson’s legacy is celebrated in this new biography, which is aimed at a wide audience.

“This book is for anyone interested in African American history, sports history or civil rights,” Henderson II said. “It covers civil rights history from all over the DMV.”

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Terik King

Terik King is an Associate Producer for WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2022 he held roles producing podcasts, unscripted television and content for MTV, the NFL and independent documentary production companies.

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