As the mystery of Washington’s whereabouts lingered, Mays remained optimistic. “Fame has finally found its way into Miss Washington’s life,” he said. “Let’s hope it’s better late than never.”
But for Washington itself, it was too late. She had died in Philadelphia five years earlier.
Washington dominated black women’s tennis in the 1920s and 1930s, winning the All-Black American Tennis Association singles title in every year but one from 1929 to 1937, and winning 12 consecutive doubles titles from 1925 to 1936. She won her last ATA Championship in her late 40s, when she and partner George Stewart defeated Walter Johnson and rising teenage star Althea Gibson for the 1947 mixed doubles crown.
She also dominated black women’s basketball, playing 12 seasons for the Philadelphia Tribunes, a barnstorming team that sparked excitement wherever she went. An advertisement for a 1932 game dubbed Washington and teammate Inez Patterson “two of the greatest female players in the world” and promised they would “make you forget about the depression”. In 1938, when the team traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina, to take on Bennett College, the local newspaper hailed them as “the fastest girl’s team in the world”, punctuated by “the indomitable, internationally famous and stellar performer, Ora Washington.”
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Washington has blazed its own trail. Born in the late 19th century in rural Caroline County, Virginia, she emigrated to Philadelphia as a teenager and took a job as a housekeeper. She didn’t pick up a tennis racquet until she was twenty, but immediately took to the game, winning her first ATA crown in 1929, around her 30th birthday. (His exact date of birth is unknown.) In 1931, the Chicago defenseman observed, “His superiority is so evident that his competitors are frequently beaten before the first ball crosses the net.” Her accomplishments were widely covered by the black press, making her the nation’s first black female sports star.
But as soon as she stopped playing, she slipped into obscurity.
Despite her accomplishments, Washington had never been recognized by white America. She recorded her victories during the height of segregation, when most black athletes were excluded from the country’s mainstream sporting institutions. In 1976, when her absence from the Hall of Fame ceremony sparked momentary interest in her career, a few people recalled that she had always wanted to test her skills against the best white player of the time, the legendary Helen Wills. Moody. A New York Times reporter phoned Moody to ask about Washington. Moody had never heard of her.
The retirement also clouded Washington’s accomplishments among black fans. She left competition in 1948, just as black athletes such as Gibson and Jackie Robinson were finally stepping onto an integrated stage. All eyes turned to them. The stars of the segregation era have faded.
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In the 1970s and 1980s, growing interest in black history prompted new research into segregated sports, often through oral history interviews. But Washington’s untimely death meant no one could find and question her. Nor were historians likely to encounter anyone who knew her well, in part because she made no effort to enter the elite social circles that ruled black tennis, or to assume the attributes of conventional female respectability that meant so much to this ambitious group. She worked as a housekeeper all her life, even at the height of her success. And she was gay.
Shortly after his retirement, Philadelphia Tribune reporter Randy Dixon lamented, in the coded language of the day, that “the whole earth never bowed to Ora’s sanctuary of fulfillment at the right beat,” mostly because she “committed the unpardonable sin of being an ordinary person with no flair for what people like to call society.
As with so many black female stars, Washington’s refusal to live up to expectations came from the confidence and determination that were her greatest strengths. A hint of this inner fire emerged after her retirement from singles play in 1937. Her successor as champion, Flora Lomax, was dubbed “the glamorous girl of tennis”. Sportswriters raved about Lomax’s white pleated shorts, love of dancing and penchant for dating stars like Joe Louis.
Washington had none of that. In 1939, she came out of retirement, took part in a tournament in Buffalo and beat Lomax. She did not hide her motive. “Some people said certain things last year,” she told a reporter. “They said Ora wasn’t as good anymore. I hadn’t planned on entering singles this year, but I just had to go up to Buffalo to prove someone wrong.
Washington has recently begun to get more notice, in part due to the accomplishments of successors such as Serena Williams, A’ja Wilson and fellow Philadelphian Dawn Staley sparking increased interest in the history of black female athletes. She was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018 (although the Hall initially got the name wrong). The New York Times published a belated obituary in February. And the BBC has just produced an eight-part podcast about his life, narrated by retired WNBA star Renee Montgomery.
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But there is still a long way to go.
Following Serena Williams’ US Open first-round victory in August, an ardent fan tweeted a historic lineup of black female tennis players.
The list epitomizes black female excellence. Lucy Stowe became the first ATA women’s champion in 1917. Althea Gibson entered American women’s tennis, then won back-to-back Wimbledon and US Open titles in 1957 and 1958. Zina Garrison and Chanda Rubin contributed to pave the way for the transformative era. of Venus and Serena Williams, who later inspired young stars Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff.
Pamela Grundy is co-author, with Susan Shackelford, of Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball, and author of “Ora Washington: The First Black Female Sports Star” in “Out of the Shadows: A Biographical History of African American Athletes” by David Wiggins.