Long before Serena Williams, there was Ora Washington. Few remember her.
In 1976, when the founders of the Black Athletes Hall of Fame put together that year’s class of inductees, they decided to honor Ora Washington, the preeminent Black female athlete of the early-20th century.
But they ran into a problem — they couldn’t find her. They optimistically engraved the customary silver bowl and placed a chair for her on the presentation stage, hoping she would appear. She did not. “We just don’t know what to think,” Hall of Fame founder Charlie Mays told the New York Times.
As the mystery of Washington’s whereabouts persisted, Mays remained upbeat. “Fame has finally found its way into Miss Washington’s life,” he said. “Hopefully it will be better late than never.”
But for Washington herself it was too late. She had died in Philadelphia five years earlier.
Washington dominated Black women’s tennis in the 1920s and 1930s, winning the singles title of the all-Black American Tennis Association every year but one from 1929 to 1937, and taking 12 straight doubles titles from 1925 to 1936. She won her final ATA championship in her late forties, when she and partner George Stewart defeated Walter Johnson and rising teenage star Althea Gibson for the 1947 mixed doubles crown.
She also towered over Black women’s basketball, playing 12 seasons for the Philadelphia Tribunes, a barnstorming team that sparked excitement everywhere they went. An ad for a 1932 game dubbed Washington and teammate Inez Patterson “two of the greatest girl players in the world” and promised they would “make you forget the Depression.” In 1938, when the team traveled to Greensboro, N.C., to take on Bennett College, the local paper lauded them as “the fastest girls’ team in the world,” paced by “the indomitable, internationally famed and stellar performer, Ora Washington.”
Washington blazed her own trail. Born at the close of the 19th century in rural Caroline County, Va., she migrated to Philadelphia as a teenager and took a job as a housekeeper. She didn’t pick up a tennis racket until her twenties, but she took to the game immediately, winning her first ATA crown in 1929, around the time of her 30th birthday. (Her exact birth date is unknown.) By 1931, the Chicago Defender observed, “her superiority is so evident that her competitors are frequently beaten before the first ball crosses the net.” Her achievements were widely covered in the Black press, making her the nation’s first Black female athletic star.