Watching and listening to Chanda Rubin as a commentator on the Tennis Channel provides some indication of the role of Black women in tennis. She symbolizes what needs to be done to denote the shoulders she stands on, including Althea Gibson and Ora Washington. Okay, so you’ve heard of Gibson and wonder who the Washington woman is?
Well, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger on this because there are countless numbers of Americans, even tennis buffs, who may be scratching their heads trying to recall who she was and how prominent she once was, not only on the tennis courts but on the basketball courts too.
Sports historian Pamela Grundy had one of the best assessments of Washington’s talent, noting that she “basically created female basketball stardom. She certainly created Black female athletic stardom.”
Arthur Carrington, ATA historian and author of “Black Tennis: An Archival Collection 1890—1962,” said Washington was “like Serena Williams, the Althea [Gibson] of her time.”
Washington excelled almost equally on both courts, but basketball was something she did when the tennis season was over. Even so, she was the premiere professional female hoopster from 1930 to 1943.
Born in the late 1890s or the early 1900s to a family of farmers in Caroline County, Virginia, Washington was never physically imposing but was gifted with speed, agility and determination. An example of that determination was displayed even in her means of survival in her departure from the South and making her way to Philadelphia during the Great Migration of the 1920s. In the city of Brotherly Love, she lived with her Aunt Mattie and later found work as a maid. When she wasn’t at her job she began playing tennis at the Germantown YWCA that was mainly reserved for white women.
That Y was part refuge and recreation center for Black Americans and Washington devoted many leisure hours there participating in practically every activity offered. At 5 feet 7 inches she was a will o’ the wisp on the court zipping past opponents with relative ease on her way to scoring. That same exceptional athletic ability was displayed on the tennis court, and she began to rack up titles after only a couple of years in tournaments. Soon she had eight singles championships, 12 consecutive doubles titles, and three mixed doubles titles.
Like many of the baseball immortals whose ascendance to the realm of national acclaim was blocked by racism and segregation, Washington’s recognition was hampered and limited to her excelling only in the all-Black ATA that was created after the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association forbade the entry of African American players. Thus, she never had a chance to test her skills against some of the leading white tennis professionals. There is speculation from some who saw her perform that she would have done very well in the national and international tennis tournaments. She was reported to be the first African American tennis player to wear shorts on the court.
As one door was closed to her Washington knocked on another in the 1930s back in Philadelphia and launched her professional basketball career. She quickly became a member of the Germantown Hornets that were based at the Y where she often participated in a number of sports. Later she starred with the “Tribune Girls,” a team sponsored by the Philadelphia Tribune, one of the oldest Black newspapers in the country. According to Jennifer H. Lansbury, a historian and author of “A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America,” Washington “became a staple of the sports pages of the Black press, sometimes capturing the headlines over male players.” Lansbury added that Washington “was noted for her stamina and the fact that she could shoot with either hand.” She often exhibited her finesse in competition with male players whenever her squad took on an all-male team.
Washington’s versatility was so formidable that she was inducted into four prestigious organizations––the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame; Black Athletes Hall of Fame and Black Tennis Hall of Fame. Such singular esteem, however, was not enough for her to be honored by the International Tennis Hall of Fame. This exclusion is highlighted by Washington’s victory over Gibson—who is in the ITHF––in their last professional mixed doubles championship.
There is still the possibility that Washington, who died on May 28, 1971, will posthumously be selected to be enshrined in the ITHF. Meanwhile, her fans, friends, and relatives can relish the statue of a young girl frozen in a shot on the Smith Playground in Philadelphia, a salute to Washington’s prowess.