I met Edwin Bancroft Henderson II at an airport three years ago. As we sat across from each other, we connected through a shared interest, symbolized by the Africa pendant dangling on my chest.
I reached out to connect with him because of another shared interest, history, particularly, using history to affect the present and the future.
Edwin and I discussed how his life, steeped in history, has led him to where he is today. He’s the founder/president of Henderson House and Founder/Director of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation. The is former a museum, and the latter a nonprofit; both aim to preserve and promote African-American history in Falls Church, Virginia, the town his grandparents are from.
But it took a journey full of twists and turns for him to get there.
Edwin was born in 1955 at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital on the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) campus — the famed school founded by civil rights icon Booker T. Washington. Edwin’s grandfather was Edwin Bancroft (EB) Henderson, a civil rights leader who founded of the Falls Church branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). EB became known as the “Father of Black Basketball” and — through Edwin’s persistent, well-documented lobbying — was posthumously inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame because of his work introducing the sport to African-Americans.
Being from such a historical place, coupled with his family background, developed Edwin’s appreciation for history and culture.
Edwin returned to his birthplace to receive a bachelor’s in History from Tuskegee University. But his father and grandfather’s interest in photography had been passed down to Edwin. So after graduating, he moved to California to study photography and television, eventually forming his own production company: Light Sketcher Productions.
He mentioned that during his time as a freelance photographer and entrepreneur, he learned lessons that would prove valuable years later when starting the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation.
“You have to be the kind of person that doesn’t get siked or freaked out as far as money. A lot of times it’s feast or famine until you get your feet under you.”
After a few years, a mix of feeling burned out from his never-ending entrepreneurial efforts and a desire to carry on his family’s legacy as passers of knowledge influenced him to pursue a career in education.
A Return to his Roots
Edwin considers education to be very much part of the family business. Both his parents were professors, while his grandfather, EB, and his grandmother were teachers.
After visiting Africa through a work program, Edwin returned to American and moved to his grandparents hometown in Falls Church, VA. When he began teaching history to 7th graders, he became disheartened by the pushback he received when teaching history.
“The way I will teach history has to be part of me, in other words, I have to teach it from the perspective of an African-American man. But in the school system that’s not always appreciated so much.”
It’s worth noting that he said “not always appreciated” with clear understatement. He found this pushback fit into a troubling trend within his community; it lacked a diverse, inclusive culture and history.
“I heard about how people talked about my grandparents, how they looked up to them, but I saw nothing preserving that history. I saw stuff about George Washington, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and all of these founding fathers, but there was nothing to preserve the history of civil rights.”
Rather than merely grumble about this circumstance, he used it as inspiration to found Henderson House and Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation. Something he says wasn’t a choice but a calling.
Edwin’s calling was no easy task. He had to overcome an early attempt from the city to revoke his land trust for Henderson House. Here is where his earlier lessons about not getting siked out about money issues came into play. When he took the necessary people to task, the city backed off and he continued course.
Still, he faced a lack of community support. Mostly because people either mistakenly thought the museum would only be for Black people or considered the idea of Black history as too depressing.
But Edwin knew history itself could be wielded as a tool to reframe damning narratives.
“Falls Church is 90% white, so we had to figure out a way to do this in a way that was palatable to the community. They said it’s just horrible what happened to Black people. And I said no, in this story, the Black people won. It’s a triumphant story. Many white people look at the Reconstruction era and Jim Crow era, and rightly so, as a depressing history. A lot of it is not complementary to them. But when you’re able to show that it was complimentary to somebody, it turns the table.”
Edwin’s efforts to preserve African-American history have made a tangible impact on Falls Church, making it a more welcoming and inclusive community.
“What I’ve been able to do over the last 20 years is influence the city to understand its good for them to embrace their civil rights legacy. In doing that, I was able to change the narrative from an all white narrative, to one that was diverse and inclusive to African-Americans, Hispanics, Vietnamese, etc.”
What’s notable about Edwin’s journey is no amount of pushback deterred him from taking matters into his own hands and wielding history as a tool for change. If there’s something he wants us to understand it’s that history isn’t something that just stays in the past: history lives with us today, tomorrow, and forever.
“No one has a crystal ball, but if you know the past and see events in the present, you can have a good idea of what’s going to happen next. And that’s the value of history.”