Long before Serena and Venus Williams, the Peters Sisters made records as black tennis stars

Theodora Aidoo Aug 10, 2020 at 04:00pm

August 10, 2020 at 04:00 pm | History, Opinions & Features, Women

Theodora Aidoo

Theodora Aidoo | Staff Writer

August 10, 2020 at 04:00 pm | History, Opinions & Features, Women

Pic Credit: kolumnmagazine.com

Before Serena and Venus Williams, the Peters sisters – Margareth and Matilda – known as ‘Pete’ and ‘Re-Pete’ made tennis history with their double record in the 1940s and 1950s, despite racial segregation. The Peters sisters were African American tennis stars.

Margaret, the older sister, was born in 1915, while Matilda Roumania was born in 1917. They grew up in the Georgetown district of Washington, D.C. where they first began playing tennis as young girls.

The Peters sisters attracted the attention of a tennis coach from Tuskegee Institute, Cleve Abbott while they were in high school. He offered each of them a four-year scholarship. Margaret, deferred for a year until Matilda graduated from high school and the Peters sisters arrived at Tuskegee in 1937.

Both sisters played basketball and tennis in college. They had unbelievably strong backhands and were best known for their doubles play in tennis and were extraordinarily good at moves such as “slice serve” and “chop shots”. While in college they played in the American Tennis Association (ATA) tournaments. The Peters sisters graduated from Tuskegee in 1941 with degrees in physical education.

Margaret and Matilda Peters – Fair use image

After college, they both continued to play amateur tennis and dominated the ATA. They won 14 doubles tennis titles between 1938 and 1941 and between 1944 and 1953, a record that still remains. Matilda also won two ATA singles titles.

The Peters sisters became famous. Crowds of blacks and whites travelled to watch them play. Matilda “Re-Pete” Peters, the younger sister is the only African-American woman to ever defeat global tennis icon, Althea Gibson. The sisters started to play for celebrities, British royalty, and also practised with actors such as Gene Kelly.

The Peters sisters were inducted into the Tuskegee Hall of Fame in 1977. In spite of their skill, they were never permitted to test themselves against the great white doubles players of the time. When the walls of segregation in tennis started falling, the Peters sisters were past their prime and were never able to compete in racially integrated matches.

In 2003, the USTA, the same organization that denied African-Americans a chance to compete during most of the sisters’ careers, honoured the Peters with an achievement award during the Fed Cup quarterfinals in their hometown. The Peters sisters were inducted in the USTA’s Mid-Atlantic Section Hall of Fame in 2003 and also inducted in the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012.

According to reports, Matilda went on to receive her master’s degree in physical education from NYU after graduating from Tuskegee. She married James Walker in 1957. Together, they had two children.  

She taught at Howard University in the 1950s and then the Washington Public School System from 1964 to 1981. She also taught tennis to underprivileged children through the District of Columbia Department of Recreation. On May 16, 2003, Matilda died from pneumonia.

Margaret, however, moved to New York City, New York after graduating from Tuskegee and received a master’s degree in physical education from New York University. She later returned to Washington D.C. and worked as a special education teacher.

She earned a second master’s degree in special education from Coppin State College in Baltimore, Maryland. Margaret never married or had children. She died in Washington on November 3, 2004.

In 2015, the DC Government officially dedicated the Rose Park Tennis Courts to Margaret and Roumania Peters.

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