Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Ora Washington poses behind her awards for photographer by John W. Mosley at the Pennsylvania Open tennis tournament in July 1939. John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia

Ora Washington poses behind her awards for photographer by John W. Mosley at the Pennsylvania Open tennis tournament in July 1939.
John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia

On June 5, 1971, the African American newspaper Philadelphia Tribune published an obituary for an individual it called “Superwoman.” Although it was a fitting homage, few who read the Tribune that day would have appreciated the level of deference granted to the individual at the center of that tribute. Her name was Ora Mae Washington (1898–1971). Another African American paper, the Pittsburgh Courier, reported that Washington had become a “quiet lonely” housekeeper who tended to a family’s residence within the Germantown section of North Philadelphia. What her obituary revealed, however, was that the inconspicuous 5-foot-7-inch maid was actually one of the greatest athletes in American history—a tennis luminary with a career that stretched from 1925 to 1947, the winner of 23 African American national tennis titles and 178 local and regional championships, including eight women’s singles titles, 12 women’s doubles championships, and three mixed doubles championships. Tennis great Arthur Ashe called Washington, “the first black female to dominate a sport.” In fact, Washington dominated two sports. Along with her successes in the game of tennis, she imposed her will on the hardcourt by leading the Germantown Hornets to the Women’s Colored Basketball World Championship and then did it again 10 more times with the Philadelphia Tribunes. Newspapers from Chicago to New York hailed her as the greatest athlete of her time in each sport. Indeed, Superwoman really lived among them.

Of course, the idea that Ora Washington was a superhuman on many athletic surfaces suggests she was an individual who could do all things remarkably well. The theoretical concept that superhumans managed exceptional balance over specialization in order to promote positive change in American society dates back to the turn of the 20th century. The notion of altruism through superhuman deeds was proffered first in George Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man and Superman.

The superman concept was advanced soon thereafter when the Wilson Administration and War Department collaborated with the Intercollegiate Athletic Association and hundreds of colleges and universities to use sports to prepare soldiers for combat on the Western Front in World War I. The American doughboy succeeded on the battlefield because he was more lively than his German counterpart who emanated from a culture of 12-hour workdays. By way of an intramural and intercollegiate sports curriculum, the belief was that the best way to train the soldier’s mind and body for war was through sports, a way to derive fun from fighting, a method to cultivate the vitality of the nation.

This was the era in which Ora Washington lived. The 1920s, ’30s and ’40s were the prime decades of her athletic career. It was a time in which she was considered by the era’s African American sportswriters to be among America’s greatest tennis and basketball athletes. And yet as the country fought its wars and made itself into the world’s economic and military superpower, Washington had her own fight to win. That fight, however, was not on any European or Pacific island battlefield, for she was both African American and a woman. Instead, her fight was at home against injustice. And her battlefield was the athletic arena.

Herein lies the significance of Ora Washington, a woman who used her balanced athletic talent to crack the glass ceiling for future women’s tennis player Althea Gibson, who subsequently opened the door for Serena and Venus Williams. Washington is also the matriarch who blazed a path for women’s professional basketball player Lusia Harris, who then made the road wider for Cheryl Miller, Sheryl Swoopes, Candace Parker and Brittney Griner, among others.

Washington’s story can be told either way. Some will reconstruct her amazing feats on the tennis court. Indeed, her eight singles national championships for the American Tennis Association paved the way for Gibson to become the first African American woman to win at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Others will focus on why sportswriters call her the greatest women’s basketball player — some would argue best player among women and men — of the pre-World War II era. The boundaries placed on her life probably saddened Washington, but she found pride that her hometown of Philadelphia helped prepare her to face head-on so many racial and gender obstacles: limited access to education, lack of access to basketball and tennis courts anywhere other than at the Germantown YWCA’s tennis club, housing discrimination and other forms of de facto segregation, and a government-led war on women in sports, especially individual women’s sports during the 1920s and ’30s. Moreover, her grit was challenged as she, like other African American women athletes, was forced to juggle more household and home duties than her upper-class white counterparts.

Like it had once existed as an axis for the antebellum and post-Civil War equal rights movements, the City of Brotherly Love was suited to prepare Washington for the burden as civil rights’ unceremonious sports figurehead during the first half of the 20th century, a period historians ranging from Rayford Logan to James Loewen call “the nadir of American race relations.”

Washington resided most of her life in Philadelphia’s Northwest in Germantown, one of the oldest and most historic sections of the city. Known first for its large settlement of German immigrants, it had a Quaker community that in 1688 issued the country’s first public protest against slavery. Decades later, from his office at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, William Still documented several hundred stories of enslaved persons escaping bond-age in the Underground Railroad. During and after the Civil War, Still helped activists like Octavius Catto desegregate Philadelphia’s streetcars and press national and state lawmakers to grant suffrage rights to African American men. It is against this backdrop that Washington made her way north during the Great Migration.

The fifth of nine children (eight sisters and one brother), Ora Washington was born on January 23, 1898, to James Thomas and Laura (Young) Washington in Caroline County, Virginia. Though the Washingtons owned a farm, according to one family member, “times were hard” and “one by one” they moved north where the prospect of finding an industrial job offered more stability for the family. One of Ora’s aunts, endearingly called “Aunt Mattie,” was the first to depart Virginia for Pennsylvania. Then some members of the family, including Ora, moved to Chicago. As an adolescent, she attended the Chicago Presbyterian Training School. In 1912 the 14-year-old Ora moved with the family to Philadelphia to live with Aunt Mattie.

In Philadelphia, Washington was a member of the Tenth Memorial Baptist Church and often occupied her time at the Germantown YWCA. Founded in 1917 when Washington was 19, this YWCA became famous almost instantly for fostering interracial fellowship for its young members. In 1918 the YWCA established the Colored Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, the first of its kind in the nation. The program enabled the college-aged Washington to spend leisure time learning how to play tennis on one of its five courts, swim in the facility’s indoor heated swimming pool, and shoot hoops at its gymnasium.

Ora Washington, winner of the Pennsylvania Open, July 24–30, 1939, with runner-up Dorothy Morgan, captured by photojournalist John W. Mosley, who documented Philadelphia’s African American community from the 1930s to the 1960s. John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia

Ora Washington, winner of the Pennsylvania Open, July 24–30, 1939, with runner-up Dorothy Morgan, captured by photojournalist John W. Mosley, who documented Philadelphia’s African American community from the 1930s to the 1960s.
John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia

An obvious latecomer to organized sports because of social disadvantages, Washington finally took up competitive tennis at 26. The moment to engage in athletics at the YWCA began in 1924, after one of Washington’s sisters had passed away. Noticing that she had difficulty dealing with the loss, Rose Yancey, the YWCA’s physical education instructor, put a tennis racket in Washington’s hand and told her that the game might be a helpful distraction.

In a matter of months, Washington found a deep and sincere confidence in her ability to play tennis. Before the year was over, she entered the American Tennis Association (ATA) national championship for African American women at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore where she was defeated in the opening round of the tournament by Dorothy Radcliffe, a reigning doubles champion. Washington and her doubles partner Laura Junior lost to 1924 singles champ Isadora “Izzy” Channels and Emma Leonard in the ladies’ doubles semifinal.

The fact that Washington had the opportunity to showcase her talent on a national stage was due to a group of men and women who were disturbed that the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) maintained a strict “whites only” policy that barred African American players in their sponsored tournaments.

On November 30, 1916, businessmen, physicians and enthusiasts from the East Coast’s largest African American tennis clubs formed the ATA. According to historian Raymond Arsenault, the ATA’s mission was to function as a “parallel institution” to the USLTA. Its founders aimed to promote the sport within the African American community by hosting an annual national tournament that featured the best male and female tennis players in the world. Indeed, the winner of three of the first four ATA women’s national singles titles was Mae Rae from Jamaica. As many of its founders were from Maryland and Washington, D.C., the ATA faced a major obstacle in finding a park venue with enough courts to host a multiday tournament as well as locking down lodging (usually in college dormitories at HBCUs) for players and officials in the Jim Crow South. Although Druid Hill Park was divided along racial lines, it was used twice as the site for the ATA’s national championships in 1917 and 1924. The ATA national tournaments cycled annually to other venues in the eastern U.S., including once at the Germantown YWCA in 1922. The existence of the ATA ultimately made African American tennis players into celebrities and symbols of racial pride as the number of competitors in its national tournaments expanded from 33 different tennis clubs represented in the inaugural tournament of 1917 to players from 145 clubs in 1940. More than a century later, the ATA still holds annual national championship tournaments, making it the nation’s oldest African American sports organization.

Washington would win her first title at her next tournament of 1924. In a regional competition held in Wilmington, Delaware, she defeated the future Hall of Fame inductee Lulu Ballard, a schoolteacher also from Philadelphia who would eventually win four national women’s singles championships (1925, 1927, 1928, 1936) and become Washington’s doubles partner. The victory over Ballard in the title match gave Washington the first of 201 local, state and national title trophies.

In 1925 and 1926 Washington won the New York State Tennis Association tournaments after defeating Nellie Nicholson (6–1, 6–2) and Estelle Alson (6–2, 6–3) respectively. She defeated then three-time ATA women’s singles champion Isadore Channels in three sets (4–6, 7–5, 6–4) in the opening match of the 1925 tournament to enter the title match against Nicholson. William Clark, sports columnist for The New York Age, called her semifinal victory over Channels “the biggest upset in the game of tennis.” And it almost didn’t happen. Washington was confused on the starting date of the tournament. She arrived just two hours before her match against Channels was scheduled to begin. A request to delay the start of the match fell on deaf ears. Officials from the New York State Association told her, “If you know how to play come over to the courts and get it done with.” And she did.

Her reputation thereafter would grow from her success in doubles play at the ATA’s national competitions. In 1925 and 1926 Washington teamed up with Lulu Ballard to win two ladies’ ATA national doubles titles. She and her partners would continue to win doubles and mixed doubles titles through 1947. The team of Washington and Ballard would win five consecutive ATA ladies’ doubles titles and nine overall (1925–29, 1932, 1934–36). Washington also won ATA doubles championships with Blanche Winston in 1930 and 1931 and with Anita Grant in 1933. Overall, she won 12 ATA ladies’ doubles titles in as many years.

After proving to sportswriters that she possessed “smoking drives” and “hart hit, top-spin balls,” Washington found herself ranked no better than third in the ATA between 1927 and 1929. And then she did it. “A new champion was crowned,” proclaimed the Pittsburgh Courier in August 1929 after Washington won her first William C. McCord Trophy, the honor bestowed to the American Tennis Association’s national champion. In a splendid three-set match, Washington defeated Frances Gittens of New York, who would eventually prove to be her greatest rival, winning all five head-to-head ATA title matches between 1929 and 1935. Washington and Gittens executed shots that were described by tennis authority and eventual ATA rankings chairman E. Harold Hopper as “far above anything known before in our tennis group.”

Washington remained undefeated in national competition between 1929 and 1936. Her dominance in the ATA coincided with the nine-year run of Helen Wills as the USLTA’s top ranked player (1927–33, 1935 and 1938) and winner of 19 Grand Slam tournament titles. Clearly, the opportunity to play in tournaments such as the French Open and Wimbledon made Wills an international celebrity, while those same opportunities did not exist for African American tennis players. In an attempt to bring attention to the quality of play within the ATA, Washington challenged Wills to an exhibition match. For Wills, who never went on record about the request, the exhibition match would have been a lose-lose situation much like the search had been for the so-called “Great White Hope” to take down Jack Johnson in the boxing ring almost two decades earlier; on the other hand, Washington, even if defeated, would have had everything to gain for advancing both her career and the integration of tennis. So a match between the greatest white women’s tennis player and greatest African American women’s tennis player of the Golden Age of Sports was never played.

Washington’s eight national singles championships included five victories over Gittens (1929–1930, 1932–33, 1935), one against Blanche Winston (1931), and one against her friend Lulu Ballard (1934). The only time Washington lost an ATA title match was a rematch against Ballard in 1936. The 38-year-old defending champ was overcome by the 102-degree heat and lost in three sets. Ironically, Washington and Ballard teamed up later in the tournament to win the national doubles championship.

It turned out Washington suffered a minor sunstroke during her defeat to Ballard in 1936. Afterward, she was advised by a medical staff to retire. Against doctor’s orders in 1937, however, the now 39-year-old traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama, to play one last time in the ATA tournament as a singles player. She retained the national championship by defeating 19-year-old newcomer Katherine Jones from Springfield, Illinois, in three sets (2–6, 6–4, 6–3).

Though retired from singles action after 1937, she entered and won the mixed doubles competition with partner Sylvester Smith at the ATA national tournament in 1939. Attention was then drawn back to Washington’s feats in 1943 when the nation’s leading African American sportswriters came together to rank the greatest African American athletes up to that moment. The experts issued up to 100 points to the nominees, which included all types of athletic fields ranging from boxing to track and field. In the end, Ora Washington received the highest number of votes for any female on the list. Her 63 points ranked her tennis’s greatest women’s player. She and her doubles partner Lulu Ballard were unanimously selected the best women’s doubles team of all time.


Ora Washington and her partner George Stewart, left, meet Walter Johnson and Althea Gibson, right, for the ATA Nationals mixed doubles championship at Tuskegee Institute in 1947. Tuskegee University Archives

Ora Washington and her partner George Stewart, left, meet Walter Johnson and Althea Gibson, right, for the ATA Nationals mixed doubles championship at Tuskegee Institute in 1947.
Tuskegee University Archives

Sportswriter Bill Lyon of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who in 2008 called Washington “the finest athlete you never heard of,” explained why she retired: “She was so dominant, so overpowering, that the only reason she retired was at the apologetic request of the American Tennis Association, which fretted that young black women of the day who might otherwise try the game were scared away by the utter brilliance and indomitability of Ora Mae.” Washington’s swan song came in 1946–47, when she and her partner George Stewart won two straight ATA mixed doubles national championships. The victory in 1947 came against Walter Johnson and the next great women’s player, 20-year-old Althea Gibson.

Although Lyon’s assertion about a forced retirement might be true, Washington had a good thing going for her on the hardwood. Before wading into the cage sport in Philadelphia, Washington traveled to Chicago during the winters to play basketball with the Savoy Colts, the sister team to the Savoy Big Five, which would evolve into the Harlem Globetrotters. In 1929, a few years after Washington commenced her tennis career, the Germantown YWCA launched a basketball team in affiliation with the Branch for Colored Girls and Women. The team was called the Germantown Hornets and its coach was Joseph Rainey, a star sprinter from Philadelphia’s Central High School and then the University of Pennsylvania before becoming the track and field coach at Lincoln University. Rainey was also a sports journalist who hosted a radio show about athletics in Philadelphia every Thursday night during the 1930s over the station WELK. During the 1930–31 season, Washington and her tennis rival, Lulu Ballard, helped Rainey and the Hornets compile a 22–1 record and claim the Colored Women’s National Championship. The Pittsburgh Courier described Washington’s play as “flashy” and “aggressive.” Her shooting ability was compared to many men players and was credited with sinking the “tell-tale field goals [sic]” that led her team to the national basketball championship.

The following season, the Germantown Hornets, which were now carrying a 45-game winning streak, ran into a buzz saw in the form of the Philadelphia Tribune, a newly created team sponsored by the leading local African American newspaper and coached by Otto Briggs. The Tribune would always be popularly described in the press as the “Tribune Girls.” Late into the 1931–32 season, the public demanded Washington’s Hornets play the Tribunes, so the coaches of the two teams arranged a best-of-three series. The winner of the series would claim the African American women’s national title. In the first game, played February 19, 1932, Washington scored 10 points, but the Hornets fell to the Tribune Girls, 33–24. The game was described as having “one of the largest crowds ever to witness a basketball game” in Philadelphia. The second game, played in April, was just as thrilling as the first. Though the game was tied 23–23 at the end of regulation, the Tribune Girls held Washington and the Hornets scoreless in overtime to win, 31–23. In Washington’s two seasons with the YWCA team, the Germantown Hornets had attained a 66–2 record.

In 1933 the Tribune Girls poached Washington from the Germantown Hornets. With the addition of its new center, the Tribune Girls had become overnight “the most celebrated female sports team in the nation,” sports historian Pamela Grundy wrote recently. The team certainly deserves the accreditation. Washington played in and helped her team win 10 of its 11 consecutive Women’s Colored World Basketball Championships (11 total for Washington, who earned one with the Germantown Hornets). Writing in A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete, Arthur Ashe called the Philadelphia Tribunes “black America’s first premier female sports team.”

At one point during a 4,000-mile barnstorming trip in 1938 to play college teams in the South as well as white teams and African American teams, the Tribunes Girls looked for opponents who would agree to play by the men’s rules of five-on-five, full court action. Women’s rules in those days were restrictive, which effectively created a six-on-six competition, but teams were limited to having three players to a side in what was effectively a two-court contest. Three guards defended an opponent’s three forwards. No one was allowed to cross half court; there were no fast breaks. Instead, after a score, a forward would inbound the ball. Then a team would have to complete two passes before attempting a field goal. Only forwards were on the side of the court that allowed scoring. Guards remained on the opposite end of the court awaiting the defensive action. Games featured eight-minute quarters, a two-minute break between quarters, and a 10-minute halftime. Coaches could instruct players during the action, but they were prohibited from talking to the team during the two minutes between quarters.


The Philadelphia Tribunes, better known as the “Tribune Girls,” circa 1932, with Ora Washington third from the right. Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Tribunes, better known as the “Tribune Girls,” circa 1932, with Ora Washington third from the right.
Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia

Before the conclusion of her basketball career in 1942, The New York Age proclaimed Washington “one of the best basketball players in the country, male or female.” The paper summarized her abilities: “She rarely misses a shot with the left or right hand; her speed, shiftiness, dribbling and leaping ability are beyond belief. She seems to have a trampoline under her feet when she goes up for a rebound. There is simply no one quite like her. She’s a national treasure.”

It took several years after her death on May 28, 1971, until she was recognized on a broader scale for her athletic accomplishments. In 1976 she was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame. Three decades later, in 2009, Washington was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee. She was then inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.

In 2018 Washington was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Philadelphia native Dawn Staley, the three-time Olympic gold medalist, Top 15 WNBA Players honoree, and the current head basketball coach at the University of South Carolina, offered Washington’s enshrinement into that prestigious hall of fame.



Public Sculpture Inspired by Ora Washington Unveiled in Philadelphia

On July 31, 2019, MVP, a public sculpture inspired by Ora Washington was unveiled at Smith Playground in South Philadelphia’s West Passyunk neighborhood.

MVP, a public sculpture inspired by Ora Washington at Smith Playground in Philadelphia. Photo, Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

MVP, a public sculpture inspired by Ora Washington at Smith Playground in Philadelphia.
Photo, Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

The playground had been recently upgraded by the City of Philadelphia through a partnership with the Make The World Better Foundation, and the sculpture was commissioned through the City of Philadelphia’s Percent for Art Program, which requires city funding of public art for projects costing more than $1 million.

The 5-foot-4-inch bronze sculpture of a 12-year-old African American girl playing basketball, created by conceptual artist Brian McCutcheon, is intended to inspire the youths who use the playground to realize their dreams. “Drawing from my experiences living in South Philadelphia, it’s been an honor to create this monument to the youth of the Smith Playground community,” the artist said. “The figurative statue and dedication to Ora Washington represent the resilience of Philadelphian youth throughout the city.”


Ora Washington is featured in Game Changers, an exhibition running through February 2020 at the Pennsylvania Governor’s Residence in Harrisburg, showcasing 32 Pennsylvania women who overcame obstacles and made significant strides in their fields since the early 20th century, in commemoration of the centennial of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.


Todd M. Mealy, Ph.D., resides in Lancaster County where he teaches at Penn Manor High School and is a football coach for Lancaster Catholic High School. He is the author of six books and is a frequent contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage. His recent articles include “100 Games: The Penn State–Pitt Rivalry” (Summer 2019), “I Must Be an Abolitionist: Pennsylvania Liberty Man Francis Julius LeMoyne(Winter 2018), and “Keep the Boys in College! How World War I Produced a Penn State Football Legend” (Winter 2017).