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The house that Ora Belle built: A historically obscure figure who forged the way for Black women in pro tennis

in Ark Weekender by

For the first time in the history of professional women’s tennis, Black female contenders compete in record numbers. Many may not know that an important foremother who changed the game is planted with the relatively forgotten legacy of a Philadelphia athlete named Ora Belle Washington.

Like years before, when Serena and Venus Williams muscled into the final rounds of the most prestigious tennis championships, the last rounds of this year’s U.S. Open draws record crowds and excitement.

Serena and Venus Williams

Partially, it is due to the Williams sisters being an anomaly in the sport—Black women who dominate tennis. The other reason is the visible increase of other Black female competitors. After many decades, now multiple Black women and teens, both ranked and unseated, have played in every round.

Coco Gauff. Naomi Osaka. Taylor Townsend. Madison Keys. These are a handful of players who have become headliners in tough matches. One, by one, they’ve been eliminated, but there remains The G.O.A.T. A name we are all too familiar. Serena.

Coco Gauff
Naomi Osaka
Sloan Stephens
Madison Keys

While Venus lost early in the competition, her younger sister, Serena, now ranked number 8 in the world, carries on. Making history in 2017, as being the first woman recorded to win a major Grand Slam while pregnant—she was eight weeks along—now she fights to win back the top title as “the champ.”

Scheduled to play against Bianca Andreescu of Romania, on Saturday, Serena competes in the finals like dozens of times before. If she wins, this will be her twenty-fourth victory and will tie her with Margaret Court for the most Grand Slam championships.

Much has changed since court-side audiences booed Serena and Venus across the globe for their outfits, their grunts, their yells, their hair, their Blackness, and just their mere presence. They were not supposed to be there, or at least in that capacity.

On the flip side, this week, Gauff, a 15-year-old rising athlete who gave an impressive performance at Wimbledon in July, emerges as America’s latest fascination with hopes that she will inherit the dominance Serena Williams still possesses.

Although, Osaka ousted Gauff days earlier, headlines gushed even more for the encouragement given by Osaka to the teen phenom. D’Arcy Maine said in her ESPN write up that it was a “lesson in humility and sportsmanship” and an “act of kindness.”

Be it as it may, somewhere in a locker room, Serena is not giving two fucks about it—she is focused on winning. It is an attitude that has often been unwelcomed by status quo sentiments because it comes wrapped in a body that historically in the West, is prescribed as inferior. Nonetheless, at this stage in Serena’s career, she gives no fucks about that either.

Indeed, Serena and Venus ushered in a growing collective of Black women in professional tennis. Moreover, their participation in inspired many Black and brown girls to pick up rackets and thwack neon green balls. Albeit, the Williams’ are part of a lineage that starts almost 100 years ago with Ora Belle Washington, a relatively unknown women’s tennis champion who fell into obscurity after her career ended.

Washington shattered records during a time when professional sports were segregated and Black women athleticism was barely visible in mainstream America.

Crowned as the “Queen of Tennis,” Washington’s successful and high profile career literally changed public recreational spaces in the United States. Rather than Serena and Williams, royal status, Washington is the queen mother who initiated a monarchy of gladiator sportswomen.

The rise of tennis royalty

Ora Belle Washington, commonly known as Ora Washington, stands in front of her national tennis trophies. She amassed over 200 in her professional career as a tennis player.

Ora Belle Washington stood 5 foot 7 inches. Even in the 1920s, she was considered short for a female tennis player. But, what her height failed to yield, her brawn made up for it. 

“She wasn’t a huge person, or very tall, but she was so fast. So fast and so good,” said Ruth Glover Mullen in an interview who played against Washington in the 1930s when Glover attended the historical black institution for women, Bennett College.

Winning over 200 professional trophies, Washington earned a reputation for her powerful serves and quick movement. On the court, Washington pulverized her competitors rather than dominated. So much so, that Sepia magazine, a post-war publication targeting Black Americans, reported that tennis officials complained “her continued presence in the sport ‘killed the spirit of young hopefuls’” who were too intimidated to compete against her. 

Laura C. Jarmon, an English professor wrote that, ultimately concerns expressed by sports authorities were a major factor in her decision to retire. However, Washington came out of retirement twice, to defeat two players, Lomax and play doubles again with her partner, George Stewart.

During Washington’s career, spanning from 1925 to 1947, she won 12 championship titles as a singles and doubles player. Eight of them were in the most prestigious Black tennis league, the American Tennis Association.

Unfortunately, racial segregation dictated the movements of much of the US, and definitely in professional sports. As a result, Washington never competed against the reigning white female tennis champion, Helen Willis Moody, who refused to even play Washington in exhibition games. It was a sour note in Washington’s career, but everyone knew that Moody refused because she would have been left on the court in a heap of white supremacist defeat.

Described as “a quiet person, gracious, yet fierce on the court” by Wally Jones and Jim Washington who wrote about Black athletes who disrupted American sports, the “Queen of Tennis,” Ora Washington, cared little for the social grandeur connected to the leisure activity of tennis at the time. She wanted to win.

Grundy, who rediscovered Washington during independent research and was pivotal in getting her inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, wrote in a passage:

Like most black female athletes, she navigated multiple worlds. African American tennis was dominated by doctors, lawyers and other professionals who saw the genteel game as evidence of their arrival among a national elite. The working-class crowds who packed the Tribunes’ games were looking for heart-stopping entertainment. The wealthy whites whose homes she made her living cleaning – even a star of her magnitude never made enough from sports to pay the bills – expected deference and discretion. Through it all, it seems quite clear, she stayed true to herself.

For the Black middle class, playing tennis marked membership into a specific and elite cultural and economic class. Washington regaled in neither. In fact, she rebuffed the notions of how a female athlete should be feminine and dainty.

Grundy described Washington as such: “The idea, typically, for female athletes is — the best strategy is you play hard . . . but the second you get off the court, you put your lipstick on, you fix your hair up and you talk about how much you’re doing this until you can get married and have a family like every other normal woman. That’s very much a strategy.”

Until her teens, Washington worked on the family farm in her native Caroline County, Virginia, located 45 miles north of Richmond. By the time she moved to Philadelphia, following an aunt who went several years before, Washington already earned a reputation for her athleticism.

Like her aunt and most Black women at the time, Washington worked a domestic. She entered into professional sports in her late 20s. In 1925, Washington won her first tennis championship. Soon after, she joined the local YWCA’s professional basketball league as a way to stay fit in the winters for tennis.

Ora Washington (3rd from left) with The Tribune Girls basketball team, ca. 1930s where she was team captain.

Throughout her career, Washington continued to clean people’s homes, and used that money to eventually purchase an apartment building in Philadelphia and teach tennis to local youth until her passing. 

The impact of Washington would go beyond Philly courts and the Black pro-leagues that existed mostly from the Mid-Atlantic to the Southeast of the US. Women’s tennis became a beloved sport by Black communities in the midst of the economic Depression that sent African American life into an economic tailspin.

So impressed by Washington, then president, Franklin D. Roosevelt added into the federal budget for The New Deal, the installation of public tennis courts in urban and rural areas. By that time, Blacks moved from their agrarian lives to US cities in record numbers in what is called, The Great Migration.

On those public tennis courts in Philadelphia and New York, two people to break the racial barriers in tennis were trained—Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. In Ashe’s biography, he names Washington as the greatest female athlete ever. Gibson played against Washington in an exhibition game, and was the one who ended the 12-year-winning streak of the “Queen of Tennis.” Perhaps, Washington, indulged the rising star. We will never know.

Althea Gibson was the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam championship in 1956, and desegregated US professional tennis. As well, she was one of the first Blacks in international pro tennis, along with Arthur Ashe.

According to multiple sources, Washington never complained that segregation kept her from competing in mainstream tournaments, though she wanted to dethrone Helen Willis Moody. For her, being able to compete as an athlete and show her abilities kept her love the game, the ultimate focus.

After Washington retired fully, she returned to work as a domestic. Never marrying, but living with a series of female companion, she volunteered as a tennis coach until her death in 1971, just one year before Title IX was passed. She was inducted in the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976; Temple University’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1986; and elected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.

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