The prominent blue-and-gold signpost that stands outside 6128 Germantown Ave. is one of many Pennsylvania historic markers scattered around this city. But it could just as easily be a tombstone for a sporting life smothered by racism.
For those who’ve never heard of Germantown’s Ora Washington, know that tennis legend and sports historian Arthur Ashe wrote in a 1988 New York Times essay that she “may have been the best female athlete ever.”
Yet because she rarely warranted more than a paragraph or two in her hometown newspapers — except for the Tribune – most Philadelphians in her lifetime knew nothing of Washington’s accomplishments. And though she has been honored by several Halls of Fame since her death at 73 in 1971, most know nothing of them now.
Washington was Serena Williams before Serena Williams, winning virtually all the tennis tournaments – and winning them numerous times — that were open to African American women in the first half of the 20th century.
She was Maya Moore before Maya Moore, the star player on a pair of pioneering Philadelphia-based women’s basketball teams that captured national titles and were virtually unbeatable.
Yet in America’s view, because she did so in the shadows to which black athletes were then relegated, none of that mattered.
That wasn’t her fault, of course. Major tennis and basketball tournaments were rarely open to blacks. And though Washington frequently challenged U.S. tennis champ Helen Wills Moody to matches, Moody always declined.
“For 120 years, white America has gone to extraordinary lengths to discredit and discourage black participation in sports,” Ashe wrote, “because black athletes have been so accomplished.”
Ora Washington was born much too soon, 1898 in rural Virginia. When she was 14, she moved to Philadelphia to live with an aunt. Shortly thereafter, in 1915, the Germantown YWCA, with an indoor pool and five tennis courts, opened. It became the athletic girl’s refuge.
She swam there, played basketball there. Then, after a sister died in the 1920s, Washington turned to tennis for emotional diversion.
Like most sports in those years, tennis was rigidly segregated by race. Competing in the only events open to her, she would win eight consecutive national titles (1929-36) of the black-run American Tennis Association as well as tournaments throughout the East.
At 5-foot-7, Washington, one contemporary tennis observer noted, “was dynamic to watch … and her overhead game was terrific.”
In one 12-year period, she never lost a singles match. She won several more ATA championships — a dozen in doubles, three in mixed doubles — in a career that stretched into her 50s.
And she might have been an even better basketball player.
Washington was the center and star on the Germantown Hornets, a black girls’ team sponsored by that YWCA.
Coached by former Penn sprinter Joe Rainey, the Hornets captured the 1930-31 Colored Women’s National Championship. During one stretch, they won 45 games in a row, 66 of 68. In an era when scores were as low as the leaps, Washington averaged 16 points a game, once scoring 38.
“She is the greatest girl player of the age,” a sportswriter noted. “[She] can do everything required of a basketball player. She passes and shoots with either hand. She is a ball hawk. She has stamina and speed.”
The Hornets turned professional in 1931 and continued to prosper. Later, Washington and teammate Lulu Ballard joined the newspaper-sponsored Philadelphia Tribunes, who went on to dominate the women’s game for years.
Ashe, in his aptly titled history of black sports in America, A Hard Road to Glory, called the Tribunes “black America’s first premier female sports team.”
Washington earned little money from basketball and didn’t retire completely from tennis until the late 1940s. Through all those decades of competition, she supported herself by working as a domestic for a white family in Germantown.
She died on May 28, 1971. As best as I can tell, there was no obituary in the Inquirer, Daily News, or Bulletin.
Whether she knew it or not, Washington did make an impact on tennis and the way it gradually, grudgingly changed.
Figures in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, likely first lady Eleanor, knew of Washington’s success. Inspired by her story, they directed New Deal money toward the construction of hundreds of urban tennis courts.
Among the youngsters who learned to play on them were Ashe and Althea Gibson, the first African American man and woman to win at Wimbledon.
Washington lived in a different time. Still, that stark juxtaposition of her innate talent and a system designed to stifle it – or at least hide it — remains heartbreaking to contemplate.
It was stories like hers, and the questions they raised, that Ashe said led him to write his groundbreaking book.
“Why did so many blacks excel so early on with so little training, poor facilities and mediocre coaching?” he wrote. “Why did the civil rights organizations complain so little about the discrimination against black athletes? And why were white athletes so afraid of competing on an equal basis? I just had to have answers.”
The befuddled mind makes odd connections, and while looking at a photo of Washington, posed behind a table filled with some of the 200-plus trophies she accumulated, I was reminded of some of her Philadelphia contemporaries, those African American women who worked as elevator operators at Wanamaker’s through the 1960s.
Uniformed and meticulously groomed, they were an impressive and intelligent crew. Despite the rote nature of their department-store jobs, despite a system that snuffed their potential and imprisoned them in menial labor, they always managed to display wit and wisdom.
I’d like to think that when Washington was doing someone else’s dishes or preparing their meals, she handled her own frustrations with the same kind of grace.