Long before female athletes like Serena Williams, Tamika Catchings, and Naomi Osaka became faces of excellence on the court, there was Orae Mae Washington. Fondly known as the “Queen of Two Courts,” she excelled in both tennis and basketball before the two dominant sports were racially integrated. Knowing the system was not supportive of a shining black star, she stepped onto the tennis and basketball courts with the goal to break color barriers.
Also known as Queen Ora by the black press, she dominated the games from 1920 through to the 1940s. According to the Philadelphia Citizen, she won the tennis championship from 1924 to 1936, making winning so natural and beating her opponents with ease. One interesting fact about her journey to fame is how she won her first national tennis championship only one year after picking up a racket. She won eight ATA National Crowns in women’s singles between 1929 and 1937 and was undefeated for over 12 years in the all-black American Tennis Association. But as her supremacy in the courts expanded, many white players refused to play her.
Recognizing the silent treatment, she turned her attention to basketball and stepped onto the court when the black community had developed a love for the sport, and women ballplayers were being celebrated. According to the African American Registry, she quickly became the star player of the Philadelphia Tribune’s women’s basketball team and was their top scorer from 1930 to 1940. She also played for the Hermantown Hornets, another Philadelphia basketball team. Due to her skills and outstanding performance, Ora had won 201 trophies in both tennis and basketball by the time she retired from sports. She is acclaimed as one of the top female athletes of the 20th century, according to digital library.
Born in the late 1890s in Caroline County, Ora was the fifth among nine children born to James and Laura Washington. Her parents owned a farm in the small town of File, on the outskirts of Richmond and Washington. The racial climate at the time compelled her to leave the segregated South to Philadelphia, where she honed her abilities for tennis at the Y.W.C.A.
She initially retired from the sport in 1938 but staged a comeback to play Flora Lomax, the reigning A.T.A national champion in 1939, whom the media claimed she had retired to avoid. Her comeback was to make a bold statement that she was undefeated and the best on the courts. Spectators of the game were left with one impression, she beat Flora with the ease she had always exhibited during her games. Ora eventually retired for good at a time when the game was being racially integrated, as reported by the New York Times. Though she was a trailblazer, the segregated society made it difficult for her to find a decent job. Due to these challenges, she was compelled to work as a domestic worker, cleaning homes to cater to her needs when she retired.
She was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976, into Temple University’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1986, elected into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, and into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.