Ora Washington was a champion tennis player and an outstanding athlete in basketball. Arthur Ashe wrote that she “may have been the best female athlete ever.”
Washington was born in Virginia in 1899 but her family moved to Philadelphia when she was young. She grew up in Germantown and began her athletic career at the YMCA there. Excelling at tennis, Washington began to compete in the American Tennis Association, which was the oldest African-American sports organization in the U.S.
Washington won her first national championship in 1924. For the next 12 years, she dominated the sport winning the American Tennis Association’s championship from 1929 to 1936. She often went years without being losing a match. She continued to play into the late 40s, expanding to doubles and mixed doubles winning a total of 15 championship titles in both those categories.
At the height of her tennis career, Washington also took up basketball playing with the Germantown Hornets, a professional team from her neighborhood from 1930-32. In 1932, the sports star Inez Patterson recruited Washington to join newly formed professional team sponsored by the leading Black newspaper in the city, the Philadelphia Tribune. With the Tribune, Washington was the team’s center, its leading scorer and, possibly, also its coach at some point. Washington played with the Tribune for 10 years, from 1932-42. The team was a powerhouse of women’s basketball and they brought joy and pride to Philadelphia through the anxiety-filled years of the depression and the beginnings of WWII.
Ora Washington’s fierce dedication to and her tremendous success in both tennis and basketball led a path for others to follow. It is said that her brilliance on the tennis court influenced Franklin Delano Roosevelt to build hundreds of public tennis courts in urban neighborhoods around the US.
Ora Washington, known in her lifetime as the “Queen of Tennis,” died in Germantown in 1971. She was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976. There is a historical marker in Germantown celebrating her accomplishments.