Rodney Grantham and Aikido in America’s Southeast

The following is an excerpt from my recent book, Aikido Comes to America. This originally appeared on Tambuli Media here.

Rodney Grantham (~1928-2008) played a pivotal role in the push of aikido in the American Southeast. Grantham began judo in 1950 while stationed in Yokosuka, Japan as a surgical scrub nurse during the Korean War. There, he would train judo on his off-duty hours, mostly at police stations. George Kennedy points out that during the US Occupation of Japan, Americans were unpopular with the Japanese people and Grantham wanted to train “where he knew the training would be toughest!” Grantham returned to America and acquired a job as a hydrologist for the United States Department of Interior, which had him relocating every few years. But the constant relocating did not stop him from establishing small judo clubs at universities and recreational centers. In the 1960s, Grantham opened his Black Belt School of Judo in Atlanta, Georgia.

Rodney Grantham hosted Yoshimitsu Yamada many times at his Aikido Center of Atlanta. Here, he hosted Yamada in 1973. Courtesy of the Lamar Sanders Collection.

In 1967, after opening his judo dojo, Tohei made his first visit to the East Coast, by invite of Yamada. Because aikido was not well known to the public, Tohei had to use local judoka to take ukemi for the demonstrations and Grantham was one of them. By the end of the demonstration, Grantham saw that “decades of judo training meant nothing” to the likes of Tohei. Still amazed by the power of Tohei and his aikido, Grantham became “doubly convinced of the art’s effectiveness” and over the course of the year, he began to travel to New York City to train with Yamada on the weekends. Soon, Grantham added two aikido training sessions a week at his Black Belt School of Judo, with the other three judo training sessions a week. As time passed, judo fell out of favor with Grantham, and he and his dojo transitioned fully to aikido, renaming his Black Belt School of Judo to Aikido Center of Atlanta.

Koichi Tohei in one of his many visits to Yoshimitsu Yamada’s New York Aikikai. Here. Tohei is executing a throw. Courtesy of of the Aikido Journal Collection.

Now a full-fledged aikido school, Grantham took the growth of his respective art with zeal and, as Kennedy remembers, held “demonstrations at fairs, festivals, universities, other martial arts schools” through the 1970s and 80s. Grantham would travel to other aikido schools in the South – places like Birmingham, Alabama and Charleston, South Carolina – and support the fledgling schools in their foundation. He also invited many of the northern Japanese aikido instructors – Yamada, Kanai, and Seiichi Sugano – to conduct regional seminars. In 1989, Grantham retired from both his hydrologist job and his aikido school and moved to the mountainous region of North Carolina. He passed on his mantle of dojo-cho to current dojo-cho George Kennedy. Kennedy recalls a “sense of uncertainty and unease in the dojo” during the transition. He explains that “not everyone was prepared to accept me as the dojo-cho. I had established myself as an educator [at the Art Institute of Atlanta] and wanted to apply those skills to the daily operation of the dojo. This led to some friction which resulted in some people leaving and starting their own dojo.” Nevertheless, Kennedy pressed on, maintaining a close relationship with Grantham, even visiting each other “on many occasions” until the passing of Grantham in 2008. The Southeast still feels the influence of Rodney Grantham and his aikido as Kennedy continues his instructor’s legacy.

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