By Ronald Lapitan
A great part of our local culture is the annual Tinner Hill Blues Festival, dutifully hosted every year by the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation. As a George Mason High School student volunteering for the Festival and other events, I formed a lasting relationship with Mrs. Nikki and Mr. Edwin Henderson, two community members who have given and continue to give much to the Little City through the Foundation’s creative work. We all know and enjoy the Tinner Hill Blues Festival, but the real mission of Tinner Hill is preserving and sharing the stories of African-Americans who dedicated themselves to civil rights in Falls Church. Earlier this year, now from my dorm at George Mason University, I read in a Washington Post article that E.B. Henderson, the grandfather of Mr. Henderson, had been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame (“E.B. Henderson Brought Basketball to the District”). In 1904, E.B Henderson formed the first African-American athletic league and organized the first tournaments for all African-American teams.
I was very happy to see E.B. Henderson receive this recognition and believe that it is a loss that this story was never told to us as George Mason High School students. It would be a great service for the youth of Falls Church to be made aware of such a spectacular cultural heritage, that someone so close to them was so pivotal in creating basketball and sports as we know them, who himself couldn’t even sit down at a basketball game hosted by whites for fear of discouraging white spectators from watching the game because they didn’t want to sit next to him. How much he improved the lives of the youth today by opening the doors to colored athletes and opening the eyes of the nation to the beauty of diversified sports.
In a time when one of the most beautiful aspects of American sports is the achievements of African American athletes, it’s hard to imagine that in 1910, E.B. Henderson was worried for the health of D.C.’s black youth because he noticed their exclusion from physical activity. He wrote, “It is unfortunately true that the vitality of the Negro youth is seriously undermined by the crowded city… Many young men leave our secondary schools and colleges to engage in strenuous work, amidst varying habits formed for life… it is necessary that we build up a strong and virile youth” (“E.B. Henderson Brought Basketball to the District”). Those he asked for funding to build a colored gymnasium laughed at the idea that black youth would be supported in their need for physical exercise and participation in sports, and then he built the first black gyms, started the first black school sports and tournaments, and later in his life founded a branch of the NAACP right here in the Little City.
Words can’t describe my happiness at seeing the Hendersons tell this unknown story of social justice, and then receive applause in E.B. Henderson’s name. It is an honor several decades overdue. It is truly remarkable that in E.B. Henderson’s time, black people weren’t even considered entitled to things as basic as having supported gymnasiums to exercise in, participating in basketball teams, and living healthy and wholesome lives like white Americans, and now because of his work they are the celebrated face of sports like basketball. It is one of those stories that should be told everywhere. Truly a beautiful life lived in dedication to advancing society, and a beautiful expression of that work in this active aspect of American culture.
The first basketball game to include black athletes was organized by a resident of Falls Church. Mrs. Henderson put it best in her acceptance speech when she said; “He’s the person who led African Americans on a path from exclusion to domination of the sport of basketball” (“E.B. Henderson’s Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Speech”). As I took joy in this well-deserved recognition, it occurred to me that we as the local community of Falls Church walk in the footsteps of a person who defined this great part of our national culture, and we’re not even aware of it because these stories are never told to us. These stories are treasures of our local history and can contribute to much more than just the enrichment of our culture through Blues Festivals and art space events. With the help of our high school history department, they can be resourced for the empowerment of our youth, making them aware of the incredible past of civic engagement and social action that they inherit. All of our local history, the stories of blacks, whites and all others should be taught to all Falls Church school students!