Washington, Ora (1899–1971)

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Washington, Ora (1899–1971)

African-American tennis and basketball player . Born on January 16, 1899, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died in May 1971 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Played in segregated tennis and basketball leagues (1920s and 1930s); was undefeated singles champion of the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA, 1929–35); played with the Philadelphia Tribune and the Germantown Hornets basketball teams.

Born in Philadelphia in 1899, Ora Washington originally took up tennis as a way of deflecting the grief she felt after her sister's death. At the time she began playing, segregation in America prevented her from competing with whites, but she became a dominant force in the all-black leagues in which she played. In 1924, she won her first national championship at Baltimore's Druid Hill Park, defeating Dorothy Radcliffe . From 1929 until 1935, Washington remained undefeated as the singles champion of the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA), returning as champion again in 1937, and went nearly undefeated in the African-American National Tennis Organization. She was also part of the doubles championship team for seven consecutive years. Considered an unorthodox player in her presentation, Washington preferred to play without first warming up, grasped the racket halfway up the handle, and rarely took a full swing. Washington retired from the ATA twice. After her first retirement, she was goaded back into the game by a challenge from singles champion Flora Lomax of Detroit; although she lost that game, she won a special match to regain the title. Her dominance of the game, however, intimidated younger hopefuls, so she retired for a second time to encourage the players who represented the future of the sport.

While making a huge impact on the world of tennis, Washington also put her mark on women's basketball. She played as star center on the Philadelphia Tribune women's squad for 18 years and was the team's top scorer for a time. She also played for the Germantown Hornets and served as team captain from 1929 to 1930. While with the Philadelphia Tribune, she toured the country with her teammates, who presented clinics and offered demonstrations of their skill to any and all challengers. The team only lost six games in nine years of touring while traveling thousands of miles throughout the country.

Washington's heyday came years before any African-American could expect to see financial success in a sporting venture. She worked in domestic service during the time she played tennis and basketball and by 1961 owned an apartment building. During her career, she received more than 200 trophies. Washington was also well known for her generous work with young people at community tennis courts in her hometown, where she frequently conducted free training sessions. She died in 1971.


Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press, 1998.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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Washington, Ora (1899–1971)

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