In 1930, the Philadelphia Tribune Girls began a run of 11 straight “unofficial” national championships. Ora Washington, perhaps the least well-known superstar of women’s basketball, was their undisputed star. She singlehandedly raised the game to a new level, and for her accomplishments, she was inducted posthumously into the Naismith Memorial BHOF this past weekend.
In Finding A Way to Play, the Pioneering Spirit of Women’s Basketball, I devoted a big chunk of my chapter on African-American exploits in the early days of women’s basketball to Washington. Her story is an amazing one that deserves to be more widely known.
Like many blacks, she came north to Philadelphia from the South during the Jim Crow era. The first sport she mastered was tennis and she made a national name for herself in that sport during the 1930s and 40s. She was recruited to play basketball in her spare time by the local black women’s team, the Germantown Hornets. Another team, the Philadelphia Tribune Girls lured Washington and her tennis partner away from the Hornets in 1932. That’s when the Tribune Girls really began to take off and make a name for themselves.
The Tribune Girls were equally adept at playing by both the women’s six-on-six rules being used in high school and college, and by the men’s full court five-player game. In their clashes with other independent teams, they mainly played five on five, which showcased Washington’s ability to dominate on both offense and defense. In one 1935 contest in front of an “overflow crowd” in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Ora Washington and the Tribune Girls defeated what was considered to be a local powerhouse, the “strong Tiger Girls,” by a score of 48-5.
Women’s basketball coverage was sparse in most newspapers. This was the backlash era of girls and women’s basketball, when most colleges had succumbed to pressure to dismantle their intercollegiate varsity teams and replace them with non-competitive intramurals. Semi-pro teams sponsored by businesses filled the void and the Tribune, a black newspaper in Philadelphia, was among them.
The Tribune Girls drew crowds and headlines most everywhere they went. The team’s owner, Otto Briggs, sought to capitalize on their popularity by scheduling road trips “out west,” which in those days meant the Midwest. The Tribune Girls usually made one trek each season to Ohio to challenge white teams from a strong, tri-state area league. A few of the Ohio teams reciprocated by coming to Philadelphia for at least one game a year. The undisputed star of this all-white Midwestern league was center Ruth “Susie” Sponseller, who played for the Leavittsburg Athletic Club. Stories about Sponseller always recognized her as “the best female basketball player in the world,” and she routinely scored more than half of her team’s points. Throughout her career there were whispers that Sponseller was really a man in disguise because of her muscular build and masculine mannerisms. But the Philadelphia Tribune Girls couldn’t have cared less about Sponseller’s lack of femininity. They weren’t exactly paragons of gentility themselves. Washington was described as looking like she’d been out picking cotton all day by one opposing player from the 1930s. “She looked like the worst ruffian you ever wanted to see,” said the opponent, a black college girl who played against her.
The Ohio newspapers that regularly reported on the white women’s league games totally ignored the mixed-race exhibitions between Sponseller’s team and the Tribune Girls. But the short roundups in the black press hint at the epic battles waged on the court. Though Sponseller’s team won many of those exhibitions, the scores were always close and Washington always held her own against her taller, beefier rival.
The Tribune Girls also traveled to the South to play independent teams and black women’s college teams. Black women’s colleges were under the same kind of pressure to dismantle their intercollegiate athletic programs in the 20s and 30s that white women’s college were, and many did. But a smattering of schools resisted the pressure to ban their women’s teams in the 1920s.
Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, was one of the progressive havens for black female athletes in the 1930s. In 1934, Bennett College went undefeated, soundly beating all the opponents they could find. They invited the Philadelphia Tribune team to campus in March of 1934 for the challenge of going up against the team everyone heralded as being the best in the nation. The games were staged at the Sportsarena in downtown Greensboro, a venue that was not usually open to “coloreds.” More than one thousand spectators crowded into the Sportsarena and the local white press sent reporters to cover the event. Players interviewed in 1996 about the games recalled being unsettled by all the hoopla surrounding the series, and also by the physicality of the Tribune’s play. The Tribune Girls showed up with two sets of flashy uniforms and changed from their red and white ones at halftime into gold and purple uniforms with socks to match for the second half. According to one Bennett player, the Tribune Girls passed around half-pint jars of corn liquor in the locker room, each player taking two or three swigs before heading back out to play the second half.
Bennett lost all three games to the Tribune Girls. Recalling the games decades later, Bennett players were still marveling at the amazing, albeit rough, play of Washington. “I never saw her when she hit me, but she did it so quick it would knock the breath out of me, and I doubled over,” said Bennett center Lucille Townsend.
Ironically, the Tribune Girls and the Bennett College women’s program both disbanded at about the same time — in the early 1940s. The college finally succumbed to the pressure to replace intercollegiate athletics with intramurals and play days. The Tribune Girls disbanded soon after Washington retired in 1943. She continued to play tennis in the all-Black American Tennis Association (ATA), however. Washington won eight ATA National Crowns in women’s singles between 1929 and 1937. She also won every woman’s doubles championship between 1925 and 1936, and mixed doubles championships in 1939, 1946, and 1947.
Sadly Washington died in relative obsurity in 1971, five years before she was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame. She was inducted posthumously into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. Thanks to the work of women’s basketball historian Pam Grundy and black basketball historian Claude Johnson, Washington’s name finally rose to the top of the pile this year and she is now rightly enshrined in Springfield, Mass, alongside the men and women who pioneered the game of basketball.