Overlooked No More: Ora Washington, Star of Tennis and Basketball

She retired from her singles career in 1938 but came out of retirement briefly in 1939 to play Flora Lomax, the reigning A.T.A. national champion, whom the Black press had referred to as the sport’s glamour girl. There had been speculation that Washington had retired to avoid playing Lomax, prompting Washington to tell The Afro-American that she “just had to” prove somebody wrong after “they said Ora was not so good anymore.”

Washington proceeded to beat Lomax with relative ease.

Washington won her last A.T.A. mixed doubles title in 1947, when she was in her 40s. She and her partner, George Stewart, beat R. Walter Johnson and Althea Gibson, the Black athlete who was on the cusp of greatness.

Washington then retired for good, just as the sport was beginning to be integrated. Had she stayed, “Ora would have beaten Althea,” Johnson was quoted as saying in Florida Today in 1969, and had she been a little younger, she could have become an international star.

It was Gibson who became the first Black player to win a major tournament, the 1956 French Open singles; she went on to win five Grand Slam singles titles in all.

Dixon, the columnist at The Pittsburgh Courier, said in 1939 that Washington might have become better known had she not shied away from the limelight. She had, he wrote, “committed the unpardonable sin of being a plain person with no flair whatever for what folks love to call society.”

Ora Belle Washington is believed to have been born in the late 1890s in Caroline County, Va. (The state didn’t keep birth records at the time.) She was the fifth of nine children of James and Laura (Young) Washington, who owned a farm in the small town of File, about midway between Richmond and Washington.

As a teenager, Ora left the increasingly violent segregated South for Philadelphia, where she picked up tennis at the Y.W.C.A. in the Germantown section of the city. She was a natural.