Black women’s basketball pioneer Ora Mae Washington was born on this date, January 23, in 1898. Washington was perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time, black or white. To help celebrate, let’s focus on a basketball team she led—the Philadelphia Tribune Girls, an all-black team that played during the 1930s and 1940s.
There are few teams in any sport, any place, that dominated so completely and for so long. The Tribune Girls won eleven straight Women’s Colored Basketball World’s Championships. The Tribune Girls were formed in 1930 with players from the Philadelphia Quick Steppers and the Germantown Hornets, two exceptional local all-black female basketball teams. The Quick Steppers featured Inez Patterson, a phenomenal sports star who also managed and coached the team.
The Hornets’ lineup included two amazing athletes who were already nationally renowned as tennis players, Ora Washington and Lula Ballard. Both teams played at the Young Women’s Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.) Colored Branch in Germantown, a racially diverse suburban community in the northern section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Patterson, a record-setting Temple University athlete who was an All-Collegiate selection in many sports including basketball, was the Quick Steppers’ most talented player. A West Philadelphia native and the team’s captain, Patterson had led the Quick Steppers to a 15-1 record and the Eastern Colored Women’s Basketball Championship title during the previous season, in 1929.
More than a great athlete, Patterson, who also managed the team, was far ahead of her time as a black female sports promoter and entrepreneur. In 1930 she approached the powerful Philadelphia Tribune, a leading Negro newspaper, to propose a team sponsorship arrangement between the paper and the Quick Steppers. Patterson went to Otto Briggs, the newspaper’s circulation manager. He was also a part owner of the publication, and the husband of the president of the paper. The Tribune newspaper sponsored and promoted her basketball team, bringing free advertising, exposure, and financial stability to her club during a time of great uncertainty at the start of the Great Depression.
In return, Patterson renamed her team, which increased the paper’s popularity as well as its local and national circulation. Thus, the Tribune Girls were born. Nicknamed the “newsgirls,” the Tribune women played most of their home games in the Wissahickon Boys Club gym in Germantown.
With the backing of the Philadelphia Tribune as her calling card, Patterson easily persuaded Ora Washington and Lula Ballard, the stars of the Germantown Hornets, to join the newly named Tribune Girls team. The acquisition of these two players paved the way for the Tribunes to dominate black women’s basketball for nearly two decades to come. Washington was a national headliner. She had just won her third of seven straight American Tennis Association women’s singles titles.
With these stars, the Tribune Girls reigned immediately. Their trademark was “snappy playing and sharp shooting.” By the end of December, Ora Washington was already being hailed as “the best Colored player in the world.” Despite a growing list of independent female African American basketball teams, the Tribune Girls had no rivals. So they looked to black colleges for competition.
During the Depression Era, while most black colleges were discontinuing their women’s basketball programs in favor of “refinement and respectability,” Bennett College for Women, a historically black school in Greensboro, North Carolina, did the opposite.
Bennett enthusiastically focused on basketball, recruiting top players nationwide to become the best African American women’s collegiate team – and perhaps the best overall black female squad – in the country, by the mid-1930s. Between 1933 and 1937, the Bennett girls lost only one college game. Naturally, people wanted to know which team was better. A showdown between the Tribune Girls and the Bennett College Five was scheduled in 1934 — a weeklong 3-game series in Greensboro to decide the national black women’s basketball championship.
One can imagine the atmosphere. For their first game the Tribune Girls showed up in new red and white uniforms with script “Tribune” lettering sewn onto sleeveless tops, and matching socks. At halftime they changed into fresh purple and gold outfits. Maybe their hot looks set the tone, because the Tribunes swept the series. The newsgirls’ scoring in the series was well balanced, while the team’s shooting was described as “almost supernatural.” “They just had it all together,” Bennett player Ruth Glover explained in a modern day interview. “They could dribble and keep the ball and make fast moves in to the basket which you couldn’t stop.”
Ora Washington was intense. “I didn’t believe in long warm-ups; I’d rather play from scratch and warm up as I went along,” she once told a reporter. “She wasn’t a huge person, or very tall,” recalled Glover. “But she was fast.” Washington was the core of the lineup. “The team was built up around her,” said Glover. The Tribunes-Bennett series of 1934 was a landmark in building interest and enthusiasm for black women’s collegiate and interscholastic sports programs.
By 1936 the Tribunes had achieved “a string of victories that have overshadowed anything done by any other bunch of girls in either race.” During the 1937-38 season the team reportedly traveled over 5,000 miles to fill their schedule, which included a tour of Southern states.
But in the summer of 1941, as the newsgirls were set to start their 12th season, a shakeup at the Philadelphia Tribune newspaper headquarters caused the departure of Otto Briggs. Then in December, America’s entry into World War II stalled the momentum of all major sports, particularly women’s basketball.
Without Briggs, the Tribune Girls soon fell apart and disbanded. Briggs, an ailing World War I veteran, died in 1943. Following the war, support of women’s participation in sports never quite reestablished itself and neither did the Tribune Girls basketball team.
However, by then, many of the barriers to African American female involvement in sports had already begun to collapse thanks to the pioneering efforts of Ora Washington and Tribune Girls. Despite her accomplishments, little had been written about her until Sky Kings and more recently, Shattering the Glass.
Furthermore, it’s a big mystery why the Basketball Hall of Fame hasn’t considered Washington for enshrinement in Springfield.
(Part 4 of a 4-part series of team profiles celebrating Black Women’s Basketball History Month.)
Editor’s Note (Added October 23, 2016) Please listen to this Podcast that includes a discussion of Ora Mae Washington: