Ora Washington was the top female tennis player of her day, a widely unknown precursor of trailblazing Black women tennis players like Serena Williams.

Ora Washington, the focus of a new BBC podcast series, Untold Legends, was a two-sport athlete for over two decades. A champion tennis and basketball player during the 1920s – 1940s, “Queen Ora” or the “Queen of Two Courts” as she was sometimes referred to as, won numerous sporting tournaments, however racial segregation prevented the African American sportswoman from achieving true greatness and today, very few people know her name.

As part of our Because of them we can… series, learn more about the multi-talented Ora Washington and how she really was the first great Black female tennis and basketball star.


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Ora Washington’s personal life

Born in 1899 and hailing from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Washington was the fifth of nine children, born to her parents James and Laura. Starting out from humble beginnings, Washington grew up in the farming community of File located in Caroline County, Virginia. However, even though her family owned their own farm, the economy was poor, at the time.

During the great migration and following her mother dying during a childbirth, Washington and her family moved north in the mid 1910s to look for better economic opportunities.

 

Ora Washington’s tennis career

Ora began playing tennis around the early 1920s and just a few years later in 1924, she went on to win the Wilmington, Delaware city championships in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. Continuing to develop her skills and prove her competence as a tennis player, she defeated the reigning national singles champion, Isadore Channels.

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In 1925, Ora went on to win her first ever national title with Lula Ballard at the American Tennis Association’s national doubles tournament. What’s even more impressive is that from this monumental moment, Washington went on win for the following 11 years.

Ora Washington
Ora Mae Washington after winning the 1939 Pennsylvania Open
Image credit: John W. Mosely – Temple University Libraries, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection

Making boss moves, Washington relocated to Chicago in 1929 and, in that same year, won her first singles championship. She continued to win this same title seven more times by 1937. But Washington faced many hurdles along the way as racial segregation existed in some tennis tournaments that she wanted to play at, such as the United States Lawn Tennis Association tournaments but she was prevented from competing there.

 

Ora Washington’s basketball career

Washington’s sports talent was not just restricted to tennis. Although she may have started playing basketball a little later than tennis, in 1930 with the all-Black women’s basketball team – the Germantown Hornets, she still became a force to be reckoned with in the sport.

Through playing with the Germantown Hornets, Washington achieved her 22–1 record earning her the national female title. During her time playing with the team, Washington also led them to win a whopping thirty-three consecutive victories.

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The basketball teams were known to play African American and white women teams alike. In fact, they would even sometimes play against African American men, too.

 

Ora Washington’s legacy…

Ora Washington’s achievements laid the foundation for African American female tennis players today. Tennis champion and the first Black man to win Wimbledon Arthur Ashe once wrote in The New York Times, “Washington may have been the best female athlete ever.” What would her legacy have been if not for racism?

Black excellence in a western world is often met with hurdles, and even more so if you’re a woman. Although racial segregation does not exist in sports today, like it did while Washington was playing, there are still other hurdles that Black sportswoman face today and have had to overcome.

 

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We have seen this numerous times with Serena Williams who is often labelled as the “angry Black woman” for no just reason. Despite, this, Williams has pushed passed these hurdles, and is widely regarded as the greatest tennis player of all time by experts. Her impressive accolades within the sport are legendary. As she prepares to retire from the sport, we can’t help but wonder what she thought about Washington and her achievements. We don’t doubt that she was an inspiration. But it’s past time that the world puts some respect on the name Ora Washington.


Watch Untold Legends: Ora on BBC Sounds here.

 

Maxine Harrison

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