Before Althea Gibson, There Was Ora Washington
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Ora Washington did more on two courts than most ever do on one.
By Chanté Griffin
It’s spectacular for any athlete to make it into one national hall of fame, but to qualify in more than one sport is a rarity, reserved for the elite of the elite — for athletes like Ora Washington.
Now often relegated to the footnotes of history, Washington dominated professional women’s basketball from 1930 to 1943, serving as the leading scorer and captain for the Philadelphia Tribunes for 11 consecutive years. “She basically created female basketball stardom,” says sports historian Pamela Grundy. “She certainly created Black female athletic stardom.”
Yet basketball was a secondary sport, one Washington played during her off season from tennis, where she captured more than 20 national titles with the American Tennis Association (ATA) during her two-decade career on the court. “She was like Serena Williams, the Althea [Gibson] of her time,” says Arthur Carrington, ATA historian and author of Black Tennis: An Archival Collection 1890–1962. Her unprecedented ascent into basketball and tennis stardom is more remarkable given the intersectional dynamics of race, class and gender of early 20th century America that simultaneously fueled and impeded her career.
Nothing about Washington’s upbringing or physique suggested athletic promise. She was born to farmers in the late 1890s or early 1900s in Caroline County, Virginia, and grew to be only 5 feet, 7 inches. But in the 1910s, Washington made her way to Philadelphia as part of the Great Migration, during which an estimated 6 million African Americans moved from their Southern homes to industrial Northern cities. There she lived with her aunt Mattie, found work as a maid and took up tennis at the Germantown YWCA, which was reserved for non-white women. This Y would become the epicenter of Washington’s athletic career — and a cultural hub for the city’s Black community. During its 1918 grand opening, poet James Weldon Johnson, writer of the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” delivered the keynote address.
Washington’s natural athleticism was apparent from the beginning of her training at the Y. In 1925, her second year of tournament play, she captured the women’s doubles title at the ATA nationals. She went on to win eight singles championships, 12 consecutive doubles titles and three mixed doubles titles.
But the forces of segregation that provided Washington the opportunity to become the first Black female sports star also precluded her from becoming one in American society as a whole. The all-Black ATA formed in 1916 because the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) — which would eventually become the USTA — refused to allow Black athletes to play. Helen Willis Moody, the leading USTA female athlete in the ’20s and ’30s, never played Washington, says Carrington, even though the leading white male player of the era, Grand Slam winner Don Budge, played Jimmie McDaniel, the reigning ATA champ, in a historic match in July 1940.
Undeterred, Washington added another sport to her roster. When she returned to Philadelphia in 1930 after a brief stint in Chicago, she started her professional career in basketball, first with the Germantown Hornets, based at the Germantown Y, and then with the “Tribune Girls,” an industrial team sponsored by The Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest U.S. newspaper serving the African American community. “She became a staple of the sports pages of the black press, sometimes capturing the headline over the male players,” writes historian Jennifer H. Lansbury in A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America. Continuous coverage by the Tribune only increased her notoriety as a formidable competitor on the court. Nicknamed the “Newsgirls,” Washington and her teammates balled hard. Washington, particularly, was noted for her stamina and the fact that she could shoot with either hand. Sometimes, the Newsgirls even played male teams — and won.
Washington’s career emerged during the United States’ “golden era” of sports when women’s athletics gained mainstream acceptance. But this uptick fueled fears that it would destroy femininity, make women sexually insatiable or damage their reproductive organs. To counter such arguments, female athletes were encouraged to be hyperfeminine and not too competitive.
“There was a lot of interest in having women who could be athletic but also sort of conventionally feminine,” says Grundy. But Washington pushed against the tide: She’s thought to be the first Black female tennis player to wear shorts on the court, and she never married.
While Washington’s name sits in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Black Athletes Hall of Fame and Black Tennis Hall of Fame, it is not listed in the International Tennis Hall of Fame — though Althea Gibson, whom Washington beat in her last professional mixed doubles championship game, is. The USTA didn’t desegregate until 1948, right when Washington’s career was ending and Gibson’s was beginning. Gibson, of course, went on to international tennis stardom, while Washington lived a quiet postathletic life, working as a maid, and died with no fanfare on May 28, 1971.
Unless Washington is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, she will most widely be celebrated for her prowess on the basketball court, which was recently cemented with a statue of a young girl playing basketball, erected in her honor on the Smith Playground in Philadelphia. To sports historians, however, “Queen Ora” will always be the queen of two courts.
- Chanté Griffin, OZY AuthorContact Chanté Griffin