The first Colored Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association was established in 1918 in Germantown, a racially diverse community in the northern portion of Philadelphia, Pa.
The Germantown Hornets, a championship African American women’s basketball team, were formed in 1929 in affiliation with this original “Branch for Colored Girls and Women.”
The Hornets lineup included Ora Mae Washington, Lula Ballard, Louise Penn, Lil Fountaine, Helen Laws, and Evelyn Manns.
Washington, who grew up in Philly, was the team’s captain and was already famous by the time she joined the Hornets. She had previously played basketball with the Savoy Colts in Chicago, the sister team to the Savoy Big Five.
But she had made her name in tennis.
At 31 year of age, Washington had just won only her second of seven straight American Tennis Association (A.T.A.) women’s singles titles and was still at the beginning of a sports career destined to make her one of the greatest female athletes of all time .
Ballard was also famous, as a three-time women’s singles champion of the A.T.A.
The Hornets were coached by Joe Rainey. He was a star sprinter at Philadelphia’s Central High School and at the University of Pennsylvania, before becoming the track coach at Lincoln University. (He later became a pioneer in broadcasting.)
This team had the credentials to win.
When they beat their local rival, the talented all-black Philadelphia Quick Steppers (who also played at the Germantown Y.W.C.A.), it meant that “colored girls” basketball in Philly was about to shine.
The following season, the Hornets, led by Washington and Ballard, compiled a 22-1 record and claimed the 1930-31 Colored Women’s National Championship title.
By the beginning of the 1931-32 season the Quick Steppers had aligned themselves with the powerful Philadelphia Tribune, the leading local Negro newspaper, and became known as the Tribune Girls.
The Tribunes were superb and started the season with an extended winning streak over black as well as white teams.
The Hornets were equally successful to start their season. “The Hornets have shown,” one sportswriter explained, “that they are ready to make trouble for any girls team in the East.”
Demand grew for a showdown between the two hot girls teams, the Hornets and the Tribunes.
They arranged a best-of-3 series against one another, with the first game scheduled for February 1932. The winner of the series would claim the black women’s national title.
The Hornets had a 45-game winning streak on the line coming into Game 1.
But the Tribunes quickly ended that, in front of “one of the largest crowds ever to witness a basketball game here.” Moreover, “the defeat was the worst ever received by the Germantown crew.”
Nevertheless, with a few exceptions, the Hornets kept winning and by Game 2 in April they had only 2 losses in 68 games.
Game 2 was such a big deal that it made the national editions of all the black papers. “The great Tribune Girls basketball team,” wrote the Chicago Defender, “won the deciding game from the Germantown Hornets for the world’s girls championship.”
The game was tied at regulation, 23-23, with the Tribunes prevailing in overtime by the final score of 31-23.
Despite losing, the Hornets had proven they could hold their own against outstanding competition.
But their success didn’t last long.
The talent, coaching, and management of the Tribune Girls had made an impression on the two biggest Hornets stars, Ora Washington and Lula Ballard. They left the Hornets to join the Tribunes before the start of the next season.
For the Tribunes, the acquisition of Ballard and Washington set them up to dominate black women’s basketball for nearly two decades to come.
For the Hornets, it was a devastating blow. Although they kept playing until the mid-1930s, the team would never again come close to greatness.
Still, the Germantown Colored Y.W.C.A., the Hornets basketball team, and Ora Mae Washington played a crucial role in African American women’s sports as well as in the greater black community of Philadelphia.
Countless girls (including Washington herself) learned how to play basketball and tennis, and how to swim, at the Germantown Women’s Y, which was built with 5 tennis courts and an indoor heated swimming pool.
Although she was arguably the greatest female athlete of the last century, until recently Ora Mae Washington was mostly forgotten.
After she retired from sports in the mid-1940s (she also coached at the Y), Washington made a humble living as a housekeeper in Germantown until her little-publicized death in 1971.
Today, a historical marker commemorating Washington’s legacy stands outside the original Germantown Colored Y.W.C.A. building.
(Part 3 of a 4-part series of team profiles celebrating Black Women’s Basketball History Month.)