A play at Anacostia Playhouse explores artistic collaboration across racial divides and auditioning for Shakespeare while black.
You might not know it, but the “Father of Black Basketball,” early civil rights leaders, and blues legends once called Falls Church home. We’ll talk with local history experts about the legacy of Tinner Hill, Falls Church’s historically African American neighborhood.
- Nikki Graves Henderson Acting Director, Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation
- Edwin B. Henderson, II President of the Board, Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation
The Tinner Hill Blues Festival is a tribute to the late musician and local John Jackson, shown here in the 1970s performing “That Will Never Happen No More:”
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, connecting Count Basie to the Caribbean with trumpeter Etienne Charles, but, first, if you've lived in Washington, D.C. for any significant length of time, you know the nickname Chocolate City. But the African-American community in the suburbs has had a prominent role to play, too, from the Civil War to the modern day.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis weekend, Tinner Hill, a Falls Church neighborhood, will be celebrating its heritage with a blues festival. But besides being the home of blues legends, there are other things that make Tinner Hill unique. It was also the home to a civil rights leader who happened to be the father of black basketball. This weekend, there will be a celebration of Tinner Hill's heritage with plays, blues and barbeque.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to tell us more about the legacy of Tinner Hill and the celebration of that legacy this weekend is Nikki Henderson, director of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation. Nikki Henderson, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. NIKKI GRAVES HENDERSONThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Nikki Henderson's husband, Edwin Henderson II. He is founder and president of the board of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation. He's also the grandson of Edwin Bancroft Henderson about whom you'll be hearing more in this broadcast. Edwin Henderson, thank you for joining us.
MR. EDWIN B. HENDERSON IIThanks for having me.
NNAMDIFirst starting with you, Nikki Henderson, tell us about Tinner Hill. Where is it in Falls Church, and what's the neighborhood like?
HENDERSONActually, Tinner Hill is at the corner of Tinner Hill and Lee Highway, sometimes called South Washington Street, sometimes called Route 29, but it's just near the State Theater. If you're a music lover...
HENDERSON...I'm sure you know...
HENDERSON...the State Theater. It's about half a mile from there, and it's a really quaint little neighborhood that most people don't notice. It was the home of Charles and his wife, Mary. He -- they purchased about 10 acres of land right after the emancipation, and they divided the land up amongst their children. And their descendants still live in all of those homes.
NNAMDII'm so glad you mentioned the State Theater because that's the location that a lot of people know. Just yesterday on the broadcast, we talked with Frank Solivan who's going to be performing there on Saturday night when WAMU 88.5 is having our bluegrass celebration. The Tinner Hill Blues Festival is taking place this weekend also. It stars with a kickoff concert on Friday night. Where? At the State Theater in Falls Church.
NNAMDIIt will feature musical performances and events throughout the weekend, the Cherry Hill Park and other venues. More information is available at our website, kojoshow.org. You can also visit the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation's website at tinnerhill.org. Edwin Henderson, I've already mentioned the father of black basketball, and you are one of his descendants. Please tell us, who was Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson?
IIEdwin Bancroft Henderson or Dr. Henderson was a native Washingtonian. He was born on School Street in Southwest, and he grew up -- he was basically from a working-class family. But his roots is in Falls Church, Va. His great-great-grandmother moved to Southwest after the Civil War, coming back here from the Battle of Vicksburg with her son, William, my great-grandfather, in a trunk, following the contraband or the newly freed slaves back to Washington, D.C., along with the wounded soldiers and whatnot.
NNAMDIWhy was he known as the father of black basketball?
IIBecause he was the first African-American male to be certified in physical education, and back then, it was a brand new field. We're talking 1900, 1904 to be exact. And he went to Harvard to get his physical education certification for teaching, and he learned the game of basketball. And he brought it back here to Washington, D.C., and he taught it in the public schools and in the YMCA and other youth groups.
NNAMDIHis seminal work on African-Americans in sports, it's my understanding, was "The Negro in Sports" followed in 1968 by "The Black Athlete: Emergence and Arrival."
NNAMDIHe was also critical to the integration of sports in America. And as I understand it, he got The Washington Post to sponsor and integrate the Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament. All of this we didn't know about.
IIYes. The Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament, which run through the AAU, was scheduled to have taken place at the Uline Arena, and -- but the Uline Arena would not allow interracial competitions. And The Washington Post was a major sponsor for the event, so he wrote a letter to Eugene Meyer, the owner of The Washington Post. And he had a -- they were familiar with each other because E.B. Henderson wrote over 3,000 letters to the editor.
NNAMDII was about to say that was one -- a lot of letters that he wrote to The Washington Post.
IIOh, yeah. And he convinced Eugene Meyer to withdraw his support of the event at the Uline Arena. And then it was held at the D.C. Armory, which is next to where RFK is today.
NNAMDIA lot of fascinating things about Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson, including the fact that one of his childhood friends was Al Jolson.
IIAnd Mae West.
NNAMDIThese were childhood friends of his growing up.
IIRight, from Washington, D.C. I bet a lot of people didn't know that.
NNAMDIYou mentioned earlier about how many letters he wrote The Washington Post.
NNAMDIHe was notable as a writer of letters. What kept him so driven, 3,000 letters to The Washington Post?
IIWell, most of them were about the racial issues of the day, race relations and the battles that people were going through regarding race relations and America.
NNAMDIThe Washington Post says he was the most prolific writer of letters to the editor that they have ever had. And there's a Dear Editor contest run by the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation every year in honor of his prolific writing. It's open to middle and high school students with a top prize of $500. Is that correct, Nikki?
HENDERSONTop prize of $1,000.
NNAMDISee, I know I would get something wrong. Top prize of $1,000. Let me not cheapen this. The first African -- the African-American community in Falls Church persevered through a series of struggles, starting in the 1880s when Falls Church itself was rearranged to make some families residents of Fairfax County. Tell us a little bit about what happened.
HENDERSONThat's correct. Falls Church was rather unique, being part of the Common Wealth of Virginia. It had a large number of Northern whites who were sympathizers of the Union cause. And, therefore, it was a little more of a progressive city or town than most would have thought. African-Americans lived in pockets in the city, but there were also African-Americans and whites living right next door to one another.
HENDERSONAfrican-Americans owned businesses right in the center of town, beginning in the late 1860s right after the emancipation. African-Americans begin to gather, to purchase significant amounts of land and own businesses, built businesses on that land. In 1864, Harriet Rice, a free woman of color, bought over 25 acres of land. Part of that land, she helped to acquire to build a church, the Galloway United Methodist Church, which is still in operation today.
HENDERSONFreddie Foote bought land right in the center of town, which today is the Seven Corners Shopping Center, 30-some-odd acres he purchased. Now, while he was enslaved, he was allowed by his master to work for the railroad, and he was allowed to keep his money. So he saved that money and purchased 33 acres. It was -- now, it's the Eden Shopping Center, the largest Vietnamese shopping center...
HENDERSON...in the county...
NNAMDIWe've talked about that here.
HENDERSON...plus, the Seven Corners Shopping Center. So here's the man who, after he does his chores, he earns money to buy land. And he passes it down through his family.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the Tinner Hill community in Falls Church, Va. and inviting your calls, 800-433-8850. What do you think are some of the overlooked or lesser-known spots in the Washington region, where you can learn a great deal about the African-American experience here? 800-433-8850. Have you ever heard of Edwin Bancroft Henderson? Or were you familiar with some of his writing? You can also call us, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Nikki Henderson. She is director of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation. Her husband, Edwin Henderson II, is the founder and president of the board of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation and a descendant of Edwin Bancroft Henderson. In spite of gerrymandering, Edwin Henderson, Falls Church was, for a long time, an integrated community.
NNAMDIBut Edwin Henderson, along with other Falls Church leaders, had to lead a fight to keep it that way. Can you tell us about the struggle that took place in the year 1915?
IISure. But I want to go back a little bit to give you a little background...
II...because in -- somewhere between 1887 and 1890, there was a gerrymandering of the community that was predominately African-American. The reason for it, they said, was because it represented a large block Republican vote. Republicans back then -- blacks voted Republican because that was the party of Lincoln. A lot has changed since then.
IIBut then in 1915, an ordinance was proposed by the town council to create four segregated districts. And only one of those would have been where African-Americans would be allowed to live. It was a sundown law. In other words, after sundown, you had to be out of that area if you were black. And the problem was that there were many blacks that lived in areas that were designated for whites only.
IISo they changed it so that they couldn't pass the land down to their children, or they would have to sell it and to move. Well, that -- it was brought about the meeting on Tinner Hill of nine prominent citizens, among them Joseph Tinner and E.B. Henderson, that created what was called the Colored Citizens Protective League. And they started a letter writing campaign.
NNAMDIThat was the first rural branch, it's my understanding, of the NAACP...
NNAMDI...which itself was founded in, what, 1910.
IIAnd in 1915, E.B. Henderson wrote a letter to W.E.B. DuBois asking to start a branch in Falls Church. The response came back that there were no rural branches. And that was because you needed 50 people to sign up in order to create a chapter. And in a small farming community, like Falls Church was, almost up until after World War II, really, you couldn't find 50 people that were willing to put their lives and their livelihoods on the line to fight against racial segregation and discrimination.
NNAMDINevertheless, the Colored Citizens Protective League, first rural branch of the NAACP was formed. Who was Joseph Tinner, by the way?
IIJoseph Tinner was a local Falls Church pillar of the community known for his oration ability. And he was also a stonemason. He had a quarry at the bottom of the hill from Tinner Hill that he quarried some -- pink granite, which is only -- this form of pink granite, this stone is only found in three places around the world, one of them being Falls Church. And many of the local churches, bank and everything were -- he actually built them using the pink granite.
NNAMDIOkay. But it's my understanding that only people from Tinner Hill can pronounce the real technical name of this pink granite. You give it the first try, Edwin Henderson.
IIMy wife is better than -- what is -- what is it, honey?
NNAMDIPronounce the name of that pink granite.
HENDERSONYou know, I have to be fair.
NNAMDILet me spell it for the listeners. It's spelled T-R-O-N-D-H-J-E-M-I-T-E. How do you pronounce that?
HENDERSONWell, if I digress a bit...
HENDERSON...most people in our area call it Tinner's granite.
NNAMDIMakes sense to me.
IIOr Tinner's stone.
NNAMDIThat's much easier to say.
HENDERSONOr Tinner's stone.
NNAMDIThat's much easier to say than trondhjemite.
NNAMDITrondhjemite? We're going to take a short break. But this is fascinating history. When we come back, we will be talking some more about the Tinner Hill community of Falls Church, Va., taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you ever gotten a history lesson about the D.C. area from a place you weren't expecting to get one? Tell us where and what you learned, 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Send as a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast, we'll be talking with trumpeter Etienne Charles, who connects Count Basie to the Caribbean and his native Trinidad and Tobago. Right now, we're talking about the Tinner Hill community in Falls Church, Va., with Edwin Henderson II, president and founder of the board of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, and he is a descendant of Edwin Bancroft Henderson, about whom we've been speaking.
NNAMDIEdwin Henderson II's wife, Nikki Henderson, is director of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation. They both join us in studio. Edwin, Mary Ellen Henderson, your ancestor, great-great-grandmother or is that two more greats? Great-great-great-grandmother?
IINo. She was my grandmother.
NNAMDIOh, she was your grandmother. Oh, good. That brings it a lot closer. She was the wife of Edwin Bancroft Henderson, who was your grandfather.
IIThat's true, yes.
NNAMDIShe was a notable person in her own right. Tell us a little bit about her.
IIWell, let me just start by saying she was a descendant of Lord Fairfax that Fairfax is named after. Going back to Winchester, Va., and then they moved to Wellington, Ohio, moving here after that. Her mother graduated from Oberlin College in 1870, which is close to Wellington. And then they were influential in starting the academy that became the M Street High School.
IIAnd her husband, James Henry Meriwether, was a lawyer, clerk and real estate developer here in Washington, D.C. He was also a participant in the inaugural parade for McKinley...
II...and helped -- they were members of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, which was a very activist church with Rev. Grimke.
NNAMDIShe was a teacher and scholar in her own right. She taught for over 32 years and was the principal at the colored school in Falls Church. For over 20 years, she fought for a new building for African-American students. And in 1936, she published a study which detailed the inequality of black and white schools. What was the average that was being spent on black schools compared to white schools at that point?
IIAfter begging for a new school, because people were actually moving to the community so that she could teach them, and, after 20 years, got nothing, she decided to change her tactics and do a disparity study. In that disparity study, it was shown that 97.3 cents out of every dollar was used to educate white students, where only 2.7 cents out of every dollar was used to educate African-American children.
NNAMDIBecause the materials and supplies that the African-American students were using were hand-me-downs.
IIThat's exactly right, and the white students knew that. And they tore out pages and wrote racial epithets in the books that were handed down. So they had to go through and erase, you know, racial epithets and other things. And, I guess, she had to come in to Washington and get a lot of her materials rather than use some of the things that were passed down to her.
NNAMDIAs I mentioned earlier, you'll be running a blues festival this weekend. Of all the things to celebrate about Falls Church, Nikki Henderson, why blues?
HENDERSONWell, we tried to preserve the history and culture of African-Americans in general and in particular in Falls Church. And we had a great friend in John Jackson, who was a Piedmont blues musician, world-renowned. He was a Smithsonian national heritage treasure. He worked in Falls Church as a gravedigger.
HENDERSONAnd he had a number of close friends in the community, including my husband and other Tinner Hill board members. He forged a very close relationship with the organization. He did a number of fundraisers for us, and he actually did the last concert of his life for Tinner Hill. Nineteen days later, he died.
NNAMDIThat was a New Year's thing he did in 2002. Is that correct?
HENDERSONThat's correct. That's absolutely correct. And we knew he was ill, but he said to his manager Trish Byerly, I'm going to go and do this for Tinner Hill any way. And he came out and did a beautiful concert, and 19 days later, he was gone. But his manager gave us a significant collection of his personal papers and memorabilia, and we wanted to honor him in some way because of all of the things that he did.
HENDERSONHe was a very humble man and would give his right arm for anyone. He taught the likes of people like Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt and just about everybody who excels now. He'd tell them, oh, come on over to my front porch. And I'll teach you this, and I'll teach you that. He was such a man full of humility, and so we decided that we would make our blues festival a tribute to him and to his character.
NNAMDISo much to say about John Jackson. First, though, what's Piedmont-style blues, and where does it come from?
III'm glad you asked that. And it's somewhat different from the -- it's different from the Delta blues. It is more complicated. If you ever heard John Jackson play, you'd understand what I was talking about. Because you see this one man playing, but you'd swear there were two or three because they play the treble and the bass. Usually, they were solo acts. Sometimes, they were accompanied by other instruments.
IIBut it's a very different style. He also played the banjo. And the Piedmont style is very close to or related to bluegrass as well.
NNAMDIIndeed. Because our own Dick Spottswood here at WAMU 88.5 and -- who's been around here for so many years apparently played a role in John Jackson's life at one point, because he and Fang Hoskins, a musicologist, apparently brought John's hero, Mississippi John Hurt, to Washington. John Jackson came out to see him as well as other artists. What impact did that have on John Jackson's career?
IIWhat year was that? Do you know?
NNAMDII don't know what year it was. But it was his first time, I think, seeing Mississippi John Hurt and...
IIWell, I know in 1976, he was invited to the White House by Jimmy Carter, and, shortly after that, he became a Smithsonian treasure.
IIAnd, you know, so he had been around for a while. He was originally from Sperryville, Va. And, you know, he had been playing all of his life. And when he moved here -- you know, I mean, he lived in a very -- in an area that's very upper class today. That's Fairfax Station. And he was always open to teaching his craft to people. He did a film back in the '70s called "House Party." And let me see, John Cephas and -- who's the guy that did the concert in our house?
NNAMDII know John Cephas is this for sure.
IINo, the other guy from England.
HENDERSONOh, Michael Roach.
IIMichael Roach. You know, all of these guys, you know, would come to his house, and they would just play. And his wife loved to dance, you know. And they just had a good old time. And John Jackson actually did two home concerts in my house as well.
NNAMDIJohn Jackson from Tinner Hill. Here is Shriram (sp?) in Chevy Chase, Md. Shriram, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHRIRAMThank you, Kojo. It's a lovely show about, what, such a pioneering family.
SHRIRAMIt's a pleasure to listen to. I was just thinking...
SHRIRAM...that I have a clue to that stone called Tinner's granite. I've been to a place called Trondheim on the western coast of Norway, where they have a lot of limestone, granite, et cetera -- spelled T-R-O-N-D-H-E-I-M. And the spelling that you gave sounded incredibly similar to Trondheim. And I wondered if somebody had made the connection to what you (unintelligible).
NNAMDIYou hit the jackpot, Shriram. Here is Edwin Henderson.
IIWell, I think that is one of the three places that you find the stone.
NNAMDIIt's -- the other two being Alaska and the Andes, I think, right?
NNAMDIYep. Those are the only places where you'll find that kind of stone in Tinner Hill.
IIAnd what's interesting is that a few years ago, they built a development with an underground...
II...parking lot. And they ran into so much have that stuff. It's -- you know, you dig 10 foot in the ground, and it's there. You hit it.
NNAMDIYeah, apparently, most of the buildings built from it were destroyed in the mid-20th century. So examples...
NNAMDI...are -- of this kind of masonry, you'll find mostly in fireplaces and in those kinds of...
NNAMDI…that's in foundations, that kind of -- so...
IIMm hmm, yeah.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
HENDERSONThere is one building still standing in Falls Church. The Falls Church Presbyterian Church is still made of the pink granite.
NNAMDIShriram, thank you so much for sharing that with us.
SHRIRAMThank you, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIHere is Unna (sp?) in Cabin John, Md. Unna, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
UNNAGreat. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a big fan. I used to live in Falls Church. And I have no idea how accurate this is, and maybe your guests can comment. My understanding was in the '50s when Falls Church was sort of petitioning Richmond to actually become its own city, that they purposely gerrymandered Tinner's Hill out of the city limits and into general Fairfax County because they didn't want to have these both be integrated.
IIOkay. If I...
UNNAI mean, how do you...
IIIf I can...
UNNAWhat do you think of that?
NNAMDIHere's Edwin Henderson.
IIIf I can speak with that, the actual gerrymandering of the African-American community happened in the 1880s and '90s. In the 1950s -- actually, it's 1948, I believe, there were some parts of Falls Church was gerrymandered and given back to Arlington County. And Arlington County is now the jurisdiction, at least for legal purposes and court purposes for Falls Church city.
IIAnd you're right, I think, about the -- I'm not certain about the fact of whether it was done for the reasons of eliminating the American-Americans from the school system. But there are some that say that. I don't want to say something that's incorrect regarding that.
NNAMDIUnna, thank you so much for your call. On to Danny in Washington, D.C. Danny, your turn.
DANNYSure. I was really picking up what you guys are talking about Piedmont-style picking. And John Cephas and -- no conversation about Piedmont could be complete without mentioning the Rev. Gary Davis. And, also, people who are trying to keep that spirit alive today with Jorma Kaukonen and Roy Book Binder and some of these players who actually have a camp up in Ohio and teach Piedmont-style picking, almost exclusively in the style of Rev. Gary Davis.
DANNYAnd John Cephas was a huge proponent of that and just -- and underappreciated the styles. So I was wondering your guests' knowledge of those players, and I appreciate you talking about it.
NNAMDIWe had a discussion about Piedmont-style blues sometime ago. I'll try to try to get what date it was and see if we can refer you to the program we did on that.
IIYeah, we knew John Cephas. I made him -- his acquaintance when he was doing the play at the Arena Stage. What was that play?
NNAMDII knew. I can't remember. I saw it, too.
NNAMDIYes. I saw it.
NNAMDI"Polk County." Sure is, yeah.
IIAnd he was involved in the musical soundtrack for that when the play was produced at Arena Stage. As far as the other fellows, the Reverend that you speak of, I'm not familiar with. I'd like to know more. And then when I get home, I'm going to Google them...
II...but thank you.
NNAMDIAnd of you -- of course, you can go to the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation website, which you'll find a link at our website, kojoshow.org...
NNAMDI...to communicate with you.
IIAnd, you know, you can go to our website. I wish that the caller that just spoke would go to the website and leave us a comment, so I'll know who was that.
NNAMDIAnd then you can find a link at our website, the Tinner Hill website, at kojoshow.org. Thank you very much for your call. The Tinner Hill Blues Festival taking place this weekend starts with the kickoff concert on Friday night at the State's Theatre in Falls Church, featuring musical performances and events throughout the weekend at Cherry Hill Park and other venues.
NNAMDIMore information at our website, or you can go to the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation's website at tinnerhill.org. Nikki Henderson, thank you for joining us.
HENDERSONThank you for having me.
NNAMDINikki Henderson is director of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation. Edwin Henderson II, thank you for joining us.
IIThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIEdwin is the president of the Board of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation. He's also the grandson of Edwin Bancroft Henderson. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, looking at the music of Etienne Charles. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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