Historical Markers
Ora Washington (1899-1971) Historical Marker
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Ora Washington (1899-1971)

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
6128 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
November 5, 2004

Behind the Marker

Had Ora Washington been born white–or fifty years later–she would have undoubtedly shared the pedestal that for all these years has been the province of Babe Didrickson's alone. An Olympic track star in the 1930s, a top basketballer, and a champion golfer in the 1940s and 1950s, Didrickson was crowned by acclamation the greatest woman athlete of the twentieth century. Washington wasn't so fortunate.

Two women dressed in tennis garb hold trophies.
Ora Washington (right), holding trophy for her victory at the Pennsylvania Open...
On the tennis court and on the basketball court, she had no equal. But instead of playing against the world, she was consigned, by skin color, to the alternative, shadow universe of black sports. Just as white-only baseball led to the formation of the Negro Leagues, segregation in tennis and golf created black circuits in those sports, as well. Writing in the New York Times in 1988, pioneering tennis champion Arthur Ashe, a star himself in the black American Tennis Association (ATA), expressed his anger at the old color line, but also his sorrow at how much white audiences and competitors missed as a result. "They never saw Ora Washington," he rued, "who may have been the best female athlete ever."

Born in Virginia, in Caroline County, in 1899, Ora Mae Washington grew up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia after her family moved north when she was in her early teens. Washington did not begin to play organized sports seriously until she was nearly twenty-five. After one of her sisters died, an instructor in the Germantown YWCA suggested she might temper her grief by engaging in a physical activity. She chose tennis, and within a year, had entered her first national tournament for black players, and won her first national championship.

She was just getting started. With her unorthodox stroke–she held the racket above the grip and stabbed at the ball with a short poke–her powerful serve and overhead, and her overall agility and quickness, Washington reigned as the undisputed queen of black woman's tennis. In her first five seasons, she won titles up and down the east coast, and held the American Tennis Association's national crown from 1929 to 1936, often going entire years without posting a loss. Continuing to play into the late 1940s, she added twelve doubles and three mixed doubles championships to her eight national singles crowns. At the height of her talents, however, the one match she ached to play was denied her. From the mid 1920s through the early 1930s, Helen Wills Moody conquered the prestigious white worlds of Wimbledon and Forest Hills with much the same thoroughness as Washington had the black equivalents. But she refused to play Washington. Their match remains one of tennis's most tantalizing might-have-beens.

Philadelphia Tribune team, 1938. Ora Washington is standing, third from right.
The Philadelphia Tribune Girls basketball team, 1938.
Still, Washington's achievement did not go unnoticed, and would have long-reaching repercussions. Her success encouraged the Roosevelt administration, as part of Depression-era work and recovery programs, to build hundreds of public tennis courts in urban areas where the game was unfamiliar. Future champions such as Ashe and Althea Gibson, the first black man and woman to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, would learn the game on those courts.

At the height of Washington's tennis career, she added basketball to her sporting repertoire, playing center for the Germantown Hornets and then the powerhouse Philadelphia Tribunes. Sponsored by the city's most popular black newspaper, The Philadelphia Tribune, the Tribunes were as much a force on the court as black baseball teams like the Pittsburgh Crawfords and markerHomestead Grays were on the diamond. The team traveled all over the East Coast, the South, and the Midwest, taking on black high school and college teams, other sponsored black teams, and sometimes even white teams. With Washington as the team's leading scorer and, for awhile, its coach, the Tribunes lost only a handful of games in the 1930s. Black papers regularly ranked the Tribune No. 1 in the country, and writing about them in "A Hard Road to Glory," his seminal study of black sports, Ashe deemed the Tribunes "black America's first premier female sports team." Washington was so good at basketball, the men often included her in their pick-up games. She also became a fine swimmer and an excellent baseball player.
Advertisement for Philadelphia Tribune team, 1932.
Advertisement for game between the Tribune Girls and Bridgeton Omega Girls at...

During her playing careers, Washington supplemented her income by working as a domestic, and when she finally retired from competition in the late 1940s, went into business, and eventually bought an apartment building to secure an income in her later life. Yet, she never left sports; Washington regularly coached tennis and gave free clinics on the public courts near her home in Germantown.

When Washington died in 1971, she was almost completely unknown outside the African-American community, and even there, the woman who helped pave the way for such future champions as Althea Gibson and Venus and Serena Williams was largely forgotten. When she was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976 along with markerPaul Robeson, the event's organizers were surprised to learn she was no longer alive.
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