The Tennis world has seen many talented African Americans. Long before the Williams sisters, Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson won tournament titles, a pair of sisters became prominent figures in African American Tennis.
In 1916, the American Tennis Association (ATA) was founded when Black people were being banned from USLTA-sanctioned events. They began an annual national championship tournament a year later. Margaret Peters and Matilda Roumania Peters were born around that time, Margaret in 1915 and Matilda in 1917.
The Peters sisters will grow up to dominate the doubles circuit in the ATA championships. Growing up in Washington D.C., Matilda and Margaret were in the same city where the ATA began. They lived in the Georgetown neighborhood—which housed mostly Black, working-class families—and practiced tennis at Rose Park.
Rose Park housed one of the few tennis courts opened to Black people in Washington D.C., both sisters started playing tennis when Margaret was 10 years old. As teenagers, Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University) tennis coach Cleve Abbott was impressed by their gameplay and offered each sister a four-year scholarship. While at Tuskegee, the Peters sisters played tennis and basketball.
The sisters soon began competing in the ATA tournament and garnered attention as they won matches and championships. Many nicknamed them ”Pete” and “Repeat,” known for their strong backhands, slice serves, and chop blocks. From the late 1930’s to the early 1950’s Margaret and Matilda won 14 ATA doubles championship titles. Their fame grew as they participated in more ATA-sponsored tournaments.
Both Black and White people would attend their games; actor and dancer Gene Kelly watched them play and played tennis with them. The sisters were asked to sign photographs and their victorious matches were shown in Black movie theatres. Margaret and Matilda also traveled to the Caribbean and played in front of British royalty.
Matilda was also a contending singles player, winning the ATA singles title in 1944 and 1946. She is the only African American player to defeat Althea Gibson.
In 1941, the Peters sisters graduated from Tuskegee with degrees in physical education. Since tennis was an amateur sport at the time, they earned their teaching certificates and worked as teachers to pay for their own equipment, travel fees and entry fees. Margaret and Matilda did not receive any compensation for the matches they competed in.
Both sisters traveled to New York to earn a masters degree in physical education at NYU. Margaret also studied special education at Coppin State College in Baltimore, MD and earned a second masters. Margaret became a special education teacher as Matilda taught at Howard University and in the Washington D.C. public school system. Through the city’s Recreation Department, Matilda taught underprivileged youths how to play tennis.
The racial barriers in tennis broke when Matilda and Margaret were in their mid-thirties, they never competed against White players in tournaments, only playing in the ATA circuit.
In 1977, the Peters sisters were inducted into the Tuskegee Hall of Fame. They were also inducted in the USTA’s Mid-Atlantic section Hall of Fame in 2003 and inducted in the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012.