Ora Washington Biography
Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, American Tennis Association, Further Information
American tennis and basketball player
Before Serena Williams and Venus Williams, before the Women's National Basketball Association, and before civil rights created equity on the tennis and basketball courts across the United States, there was Ora Washington. Washington was a talented athlete who flourished in her chosen sports of tennis and basketball. She was the reigning champion of the American Tennis Association (ATA) from 1929 to 1935. She was the star player for the Philadelphia Tribunes and Germantown Hornets women's basketball teams. By the time she retired from play, she had played twelve years of undefeated tennis and earned 201 trophies for both tennis and basketball. Her accomplishments have placed her among the top female athletes of the twentieth century.
Born on January 16, 1899, Washington grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a girl she attended the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in Germantown. It was here that she would get her start in tennis. In 1924, an instructor counseled Washington to take up some kind of sport to help her overcome the grief she felt over the death of one of her sisters. Washington picked up the tennis racket and within a year she entered her first national tournament for black players. She played against Dorothy Radcliffe at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore, Maryland, and won. Malcolm Poindexter related to A. S. Young in Negro Firsts in Sports, "From the moment she tried tennis, Ora found a deep and sincere interest in the game.… Her blossoming years showed victory after victory in New England, New York, Indiana, Virginia, and Pennsylvania—and all of them over name players."
Within four years of this first victory, Washington established herself as the ATA's women's singles champion. In 1929, she beat the preceding year's champion, Lulu Ballard, and for the next six years held onto that title. In 1936, she faced off against Ballard in a match that broke Washington's winning streak. In that game, which was played in Wilberforce, Ohio, Washington suffered a case of sunstroke. The weakness she experienced because of the sunstroke made it impossible for her to defend her title. Not ready to hand over the title permanently, she came back the next year and reestablished her championship status when she beat Catherine Jones in a match in Springfield, Massachusetts.
In addition to being the ATA's singles champion, Washington also proved her mettle on the court by being on the winning women's doubles team from 1928 to 1936. For the majority of those years, her partner was Ballard, her consistent rival for the singles title. Poindexter related to young Washington's extraordinary tennis career, "During her lengthy reign, Miss Washington bested many of the American Tennis Association's top-seeded starts. Women like Emma Leonard, Frances Giddens and Lillian Hines were no match for the blazing pace that became a trademark of Ora's." Poindexter further described Washington's style of play, "She had the strategy and was dynamic to watch … and her over-head game was terrific. She played an entirely different style—using mostly forehand, backhand drive, and slice.… Ora had a dependable service."
Eventually, Washington decided to retire from tennis. She ended up retiring twice. The first time she retired, she was pressured back into play by a challenge from then singles champion Flora Lomax. Lomax had been disappointed that she could not prove herself against the long-reigning champion. Washington came out of retirement and easily beat Lomax. She stayed in the game for a while longer until pressure from within the tennis community convinced her to retire permanently. A tennis official complained that younger players were afraid to meet the challenge of playing against Washington and were avoiding the sport.
One of Washington's biggest goals was never met. As the women's singles champion in the African American tennis circuit, she had wanted to prove herself against the United States Lawn Tennis Association's champion, Helen Wills Moody. Segregation and Moody's unwillingness to take the challenge kept Washington from proving that she was the best women's singles tennis player in the United States. Upon her retirement, Washington's consecutive championships in the ATA's singles and doubles categories alone established her as one of the best female tennis players in the United States. Her accomplishments on the court set the stage for later players such as the ground-breaking Althea Gibson and the inspiring Williams sisters.
In 1931, in the midst of her highly successful tennis career, Washington began playing basketball on a traveling team. She played center for the Philadelphia Tribune, a highly successful team sponsored by the popular African-American newspaper of the same name. Washington was considered one of the most valuable players for the team. As the center, she was often their top scorer. For several years she acted as coach. During most of the 1930s, black papers named the Philadelphia Tribune the women's basketball national champions. According to Arthur Ashe in A Hard Road to Glory, "The Philadelphia Tribune was black America's first premier female sports team." Their record was proof. The Tribune only lost six times in games played during the 1930s.
Women's basketball at the time was primarily played with three players on offense and three on defense. Ashe described the style, "The Tribune squad … played the typical six-players-per-team style which had separate threesomes for offense and defense at opposite ends of the court. This was done so as to minimize the 'strain' on the players. It was still fervently, but erroneously, believed that women had innately delicate natures and too much exercise would damage their equilibrium." Not all games were played by women's rules though. Washington's team often played by men's rules, without any noticeable strain. In fact, her team was successful playing by either set of rules.
As a traveling team, the Philadelphia Tribune played games throughout the East, Midwest, and South. They played teams like their own, which were sponsored by businesses or newspapers; they played white and black teams; and they played against high school and college teams. Wherever they played they would also sponsor clinics to help other women and girls learn about basketball. In total, Washington played basketball for eighteen years for the Tribune and another Philadelphia team called the Germantown Hornets.
One of their better attended games was in 1934 when they played against the women of Bennett College, an elite black college in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Tribune faced off against Bennett in a three-game series that attracted attention even from the white press. Their initial game was so well attended that it was played at the Greensboro Sportsarena, a venue in which blacks did not usually play. Rita Liberti quoted a contemporary Greensboro News report in her article in the Journal of Sport History, "The Tribune girls, led by the indomitable, internally famed and stellar performer, Ora Washington, national women's singles champ in tennis, comes with enviable reputation." Not only was Washington the top scorer and team captain, she dominated the court in a manner that is often found in the modern game. Liberti noted Bennett player Lucille Townsend's response to Washington's court manner, "I told the referee she's [Ora] hittin' me in the stomach every time I jump." Despite the roughness, Washington's team prevailed in the series, winning all three games.
Many historians consider Washington one of the premiere athletes in women's sports. Young compared Washington with Gibson, "The difference in eras—consequently in the styles of play—comprises the major point of conjecture as to who was the greater of women players, Althea Gibson or the earlier Ora Washington of Philadelphia.… Washington … might well have been 'the first Althea Gibson' had she been the beneficiary of the all-out sponsorship Miss Gibson received." Washington's continuity and endurance were hallmarks of long and distinguished careers in both basketball and tennis. Even after her career ended, Washington continued to help younger generations learn to play tennis in her hometown of Germantown. Her historical anonymity in the face of her accomplishments can be blamed on the existence of racial segregation, bias, and lost opportunities. In 1975, Washington was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame. The organization was unaware that she had died four years earlier in 1971.
Sketch by Eve M. B. Hermann
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