Trailblazer Ora Mae Washington should be in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
Her feats were ignored by white media but chronicled in the black press
UPDATE—Ora Mae Washington is a part of the newest Basketball Hall of Fame class.
Every year around this time, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announces who it will enshrine in September from among hundreds of eligible players, coaches, referees and contributors.
Since 2007, I’ve been publishing a list of African-American pioneers from the mostly forgotten Black Fives Era of basketball who, in my opinion, are its most deserving candidates for enshrinement in the Hall.
The Black Fives Era lasted from 1904 — when basketball was first introduced to African-Americans on a large-scale, organized basis — to the racial integration of the NBA in 1950. During this period, dozens of all-black teams emerged, flourished and excelled.
One individual, Ora Mae Washington, has been on my list since the first one in 2007. Few realize that this sports pioneer, born in Virginia on Jan. 23, 1898, and raised in the Germantown section of North Philadelphia, was perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time, regardless of race.
During the 1930s and ’40s, she won 11 straight Colored Women’s Basketball World Championship titles — 12 total. Washington also won nine straight women’s singles titles between 1929 and 1937 with the American Tennis Association, an all-black governing body formed to counter the racially exclusive United States Lawn Tennis Association (today’s USTA). She also won 12 straight ATA doubles championships, starting in 1925.
Washington is a forgotten trailblazer not only because the history of the Black Fives Era was long overlooked but also because she was at her peak during a time when female participation in rigorous athletic competition was frowned upon. Why? There were the standard concerns about exploitation and the risk of exhaustion for the daintier sex. Bowling, swimming, tennis and golf, were OK, but basketball? Not so much. What’s more, these archaic views were shared and promoted by some of America’s leading women at the time.
As a result, starting in the 1920s, sports educators and authorities began a systematic effort to curtail female hoops. In 1923, the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation launched a campaign against women’s competition in high schools and colleges as well as in the Olympic Games, under the leadership of Lou Henry Hoover, wife of Herbert Hoover, then the U.S. secretary of commerce. Lou Henry Hoover was also the national president of the Girl Scouts of America.
These efforts were devastatingly effective. By 1930, only about 10 percent of U.S. colleges had women’s varsity basketball teams, down from nearly a quarter just a decade earlier. Women’s basketball was nipped in the bud just as interest and participation were beginning to blossom, and right when the pipeline for its growth was being established.
The insidious hidden effect of these efforts was to solidify a warped perception of the roles that men and women were “supposed” to play in American society as a whole.
Nevertheless, Washington walked into this context without blinking an eye.
As a youngster, she was a tennis prodigy and had already become famous through that sport by the time basketball caught her attention. In 1930, she joined all-black Germantown Hornets, a squad connected to the country’s first Colored Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, established in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1918. She promptly led the team to a 22-1 record and the Colored Women’s National Championship title for 1930-31.
In late 1931, the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s oldest black newspaper, organized a new African-American female team known as the Tribune Girls. Washington left the Germantown squad to join the Tribunes before the start of the next season, setting the “Newsgirls” up to dominate African-American women’s basketball for the next decade. Their trademark was “snappy playing and sharp shooting.” Soon, Washington was being hailed as “the best Colored player in the world” and became the first black female sports superstar.
African-American women’s basketball teams were commonly known by their once politically correct, now bewildering, nicknames, such as Sepia Amazons of the maple court, Chocolate Coeds, dusky hardwood lassies, bronze hoopettes, brown femme casaba squads and, my favorite, African floor queens.
But despite the growing list of independent female all-black basketball squads, the Tribune Girls had no real rivals, so they looked to historically black colleges and universities for competition.
During the Great Depression, while most black colleges were discontinuing their women’s basketball programs in favor of “refinement and respectability,” Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, did the opposite. The school enthusiastically focused on basketball, recruiting top players nationwide to become the best African-American women’s collegiate team, and perhaps the best overall black female squad, in the country by the mid-1930s. Between 1933 and 1937, the Bennett Girls lost only one college game.
Naturally, folks had to know which of the two teams was better, so a showdown was scheduled in 1934: a weeklong, three-game series in Greensboro to decide the national black women’s basketball championship.
For their first game, the Tribune Girls showed up in new red-and-white uniforms with script “Tribune” lettering sewn onto sleeveless tops and matching socks. At halftime, they changed into fresh purple-and-gold outfits. Their hot new looks set the tone. Behind shooting that was described as “almost supernatural,” the Tribunes swept the series. “They just had it all together,” Bennett player Ruth Glover explained in a modern-day interview. “They could dribble and keep the ball and make fast moves in to the basket which you couldn’t stop.”
Washington’s ferocious intensity made her unstoppable. “I didn’t believe in long warm-ups,” she once told a reporter. “I’d rather play from scratch and warm up as I went along.” Despite her size, Washington was the core of the lineup. “The team was built up around her,” said Glover. “She wasn’t a huge person, or very tall,” the Bennett player recalled. “But she was fast.”
The Tribunes-Bennett series of 1934 was a turning point for women’s sports, as it ushered in a renewed interest in female intercollegiate athletic programs overall, beyond the African-American community and beyond basketball. During the 1937-38 season, the team reportedly traveled more than 5,000 miles to fill their schedule, which included a tour of Southern states.
Together with her tennis accolades, Washington’s presence on the sports stage shattered many previously existing notions about race and gender.
She almost single-handedly filled the two-decade void between the 1920s, when Lou Henry Hoover locked down female athletes, and the 1950s, when African-American tennis star Althea Gibson burst onto the national sports scene.
I mention Gibson, specifically, because in 1950 she became the first black player to compete in any United States Lawn Tennis Association event. A year later, she was the first African-American athlete invited to compete at Wimbledon.
Gibson won the French Open in 1956 and then won back-to-back titles at the US Open and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 before retiring from official competition. The Associated Press named her its Female Athlete of the Year for both of those seasons, signaling to the world that African-American women in sports could no longer be denied.
Where did Gibson grow up as a young tennis prodigy? Who was her tennis mentor? You guessed it — in Philadelphia under the watchful and protective wing of Washington. Washington not only trained her but also was her teammate in ATA doubles competitions during the late 1940s.
Gibson was followed by new women’s sports icons such as Wilma Rudolph and then, of course, many other female athletes, all who could trace their lineage back to Washington’s original superstardom. It would take another generation of achievement and breakthroughs before the advent of Title IX in 1972 allowed collegiate athletic scholarships for women.
Today, record numbers of female Olympians represent the United States; 292 competed in the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, actually outnumbering men for the second Olympiad in a row, and 109 competed this year at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Their athletic lineage can be traced back to Washington’s original pioneering efforts.
Unfortunately, Washington’s fame as an athlete did not last and she was mostly forgotten. After retiring from basketball and tennis in the late 1940s, there were few career options open to African-American women, so she made a living as a housekeeper. Sadly, her death in 1971 went virtually unnoticed.
However, in 1975, Washington was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame, and in 2004 a historical marker commemorating Washington’s legacy was dedicated outside the original Germantown Colored YWCA building where she began her sports career.
Washington’s pioneering contributions to sports went far beyond basketball. Based on her hardwood achievements alone, she deserves enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.