On July 31 in Philadelphia, there was the historic event of the unveiling of the first-ever free-standing statue of an individual African-American girl.
Named MVP, the statue was unveiled at Smith Playground in the City of Brotherly Love by public art officials and the artist, Brian McCutcheon.
The status depicts a young middle-school-aged woman clutching a basketball, poised to make a decision. City workers who commissioned the art hope MVP will inspire those in the South Philadelphia neighborhood it resides in.
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According to PENN LIVE, MVP is inspired, in part, by Ora Washington, an African-American athlete from Philadelphia. Miss Washington lived and dominated two sporting disciplines – basketball and tennis – at a time where racial segregation was rife.
Before the Williams sisters took over tennis, before the Women’s National Basketball Association, and before civil rights created equity on the tennis and basketball courts across the United States, there was Ora Washington.
Born in Philadelphia, Washington began playing organized sports competitively when she was 25 years old. She chose to play tennis at the Germantown YWCA, at the suggestion of an instructor who was trying to console her after her sister passed away.
She is best remembered for her twelve years of undefeated play (1924-36) in the all-Black American Tennis Association (ATA). Washington won eight ATA National Crowns in women’s singles between 1929 and 1937. With a number of different partners, she also won every women’s doubles championship between 1925 and 1936, and mixed doubles championships in 1939, 1946, and 1947.
One of Washington’s biggest goals was never met. After conquering the women’s singles champion in the African American tennis circuit, she wanted to prove herself against the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s champion, Helen Wills Moody.
Two things stood in the way of this aspiration – segregation and Moody’s unwillingness to take the challenge. However, Washington did not need to play Moody to be recognized as the best in her time.
Upon her retirement, Washington’s consecutive championships in the ATA’s singles and doubles categories alone established her as one of the best female tennis players in the United States. Her accomplishments on the court set the stage for later players such as the ground-breaking Althea Gibson and the inspiring Williams sisters.
Washington retired from tennis twice. The first time she retired, she was pressured back into play by a challenge from then singles champion Flora Lomax. Lomax had been disappointed that she could not prove herself against the long-reigning champion. Washington came out of retirement and easily beat Lomax. She stayed in the game for a while longer until pressure from within the tennis community convinced her to retire permanently. A tennis official complained that younger players were afraid to meet the challenge of playing against Washington and were avoiding the sport.
Her athletic ability was not just as a tennis player. In 1930s and 1940s, she was center, leading scorer, and coach for the Philadelphia Tribune’s women’s basketball team, which traveled across the country playing White and Black, men or women’s teams. She also featured greatly for the Germantown Hornets, another Philadelphia basketball team.
Washington picked up basketball in the fall of 1930, playing for the Germantown Hornets, a team sponsored by the Y. Basketball, like tennis, was segregated, and the team with the best record in the country at the end of the season was declared the National Champion. In 1931, that team was the 21–1 Germantown Hornets.
The next year, the Tribunes poached Ora Washington away from the Hornets. Over the next 12 years, Ora and the Tribune Girls subjugated the east coast, through the South and the Midwest. The team had no rivals, and Ora was their star.
Ora Washington died on May 28, 1971. She was 73. Five years later she was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976. When the Black Athletes Hall of Fame inducted her in March 1976, they were unaware that she had died five years earlier.
Washington was also inducted into Temple University’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1986, and in 2009 she was elected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, located in Knoxville, Tennessee.