by Len Lear
I happened to be in Germantown recently, and I noticed one of the many historical markers one sees in the city’s most historic areas. The marker indicates that Ora Mae Washington had taught and played tennis there at 6128 Germantown Ave. when it was the “Colored YWCA.” (It is now home to the Settlement Music School.) The marker was placed there Nov. 5, 2004. I am willing to bet that almost every person reading this article is saying to him/herself at this point, “Who was Ora Mae Washington?”
The marker brought back an almost 50-year-old memory for me that I thought was worth sharing. In my humble opinion, Ora Mae Washington deserves a statue in a prominent place a lot more than Frank Rizzo or any Confederate general. Despite the fact that almost no one alive knows who she was, the late tennis champion Arthur Ashe said she “may have been the best female athlete ever.”
Washington was unquestionably one of the greatest female athletes in U.S. history.
Born in 1898, the Germantown resident was known as the “Queen of Tennis” in the 1930s. It is hard to believe how dominant she was. In professional tennis, she won the American Tennis Association’s national singles title eight times in nine years between 1929 and 1937 and every single woman’s doubles championship between 1925 and 1936 — 12 of them. In one 12-year period, she never lost a match, despite the fact that many tournaments would not even let her compete because she was black. She wanted desperately to compete against the top white female tennis player of the time, Helen Wills Moody (1905-1998), but Moody refused to play her.
Washington’s remarkable athletic ability was not just as a tennis player. The 5-foot-7 dynamo also played basketball first in 1930 with the Germantown Hornets, sponsored by the Germantown YWCA, where their 22-1 record earned them the national female title. During one period, her team won 45 games in a row and 66 out of 68. In the 1930s and ’40s she was also the center, leading scorer and coach for the Philadelphia Tribune’s women’s basketball team, which traveled across the country playing white and black, men’s and women’s teams. The Tribunes played a three-game event against Bennett College in 1934 and won all three games, the second of which was described by the Chicago Defender as “the greatest exhibition ever staged in North Carolina.” The “Tribune Girls” won 11 straight Women’s Colored Basketball World Championships, and Washington was often described as “the best Colored player in the world.”
One sportswriter for a New York newspaper wrote in 1937, “Washington is one of the best basketball players in the country, male or female. 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.”
But Washington, who would have earned multi-million dollar contracts with shoe companies today, spent most of her life in relative obscurity. Female athletes got almost no coverage in the media at that time and black female athletes even less. In fact, Washington made so little money from her astonishing athletic accomplishments that for many years she had to work as a domestic servant for a white family in Germantown in order to put food on the table.
According to the African American Registry, a nonprofit historical organization, when the Black Athletes Hall of Fame inducted her in March, 1976, they were not even aware that Ora Mae Washington had died in Philadelphia five years earlier on May 28, 1971. In fact, when she died, there was no obituary for her in any of the city’s daily newspapers.
I had the privilege of interviewing Washington in 1969 for the Tribune, where I worked from 1967 to 1977. She was soft-spoken, humble and remarkably free of anger, despite the racism she had to fight and the fact that her unique accomplishments had gone largely ignored. “I did not do it for the fame or money,” she said. “I just loved to compete, and going up against the best brought out the best in me, whether it was basketball or tennis. That was why I wanted to play Helen Wills Moody. I just hope the day comes when all athletes, regardless of race, can compete against each other and get the recognition they deserve based solely on their ability.”
Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com.