Remembering the First Pair of African-American Sisters to Take Tennis by Storm

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 9, 2015

Margaret and Matilda Roumania Peters were doubles champions decades before Serena and Venus Williams were born.
Margaret and Matilda Roumania Peters were doubles champions decades before Serena and Venus Williams were born.Anonymous/Associated Press

As Serena and Venus Williams play out the end of their careers, debates have risen about their place in tennis and American history.

Some call Serena Williams the greatest female tennis player of all time. Journalist Ian Crouch recently wrote a story for the New Yorker proclaiming Serena as America's greatest athlete. Few dispute that the sisters are one of the most dynamic sibling duos in sports history. 

Yet perhaps even fewer know that the Williams sisters weren't the first African-American siblings to take tennis by storm. 

That distinction belongs to Margaret and Matilda Roumania Peters, sisters from Washington D.C. who wowed crowds with their spectacular doubles play in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. 

Nicknamed "Pete" and "Re-Pete," respectively, the Peters sisters played in the American Tennis Association, a league formed to give African-Americans a chance to play competitive tennis at a national level.

Established in 1916 and still alive today, the ATA is the oldest black sports organization in the U.S. Similar to the Negro Leagues in baseball, the ATA offered top black tennis players—who were denied access to all-white professional leagues—a stage to showcase their talents.

The ATA sponsored tournaments throughout the country. Although top players didn't make a living from these tournaments, they were indeed stars. The Peters sisters were often asked to pose for publicity shots and sign autographs. Crowds of blacks and whites traveled to watch them play. 

Margaret Peters, far left, poses with other African-American tennis players.
Margaret Peters, far left, poses with other African-American tennis players.Anonymous/Associated Press

Known for their slice serves, powerful backhands and quick chop shots, the Peters sisters became pseudo-celebrities. Margaret (sometimes called "Big Pete") was the oldest by two years and the taller sister. Matilda, (Re-Pete) was the younger, feistier sister. 

According to Cecil Harris and Larryette Kyle-DeBose's book Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis, actor and dancer Gene Kelly, stationed at a Navy Base near Washington D.C. during World War II, dropped in to watch the sisters play in 1944. Kelly would also play tennis with the Peters sisters when he was in town. 

In a Jan. 10, 1942 edition of the Afro American newspaper, the "famous Peters sisters" made headlines for winning a fourth-consecutive doubles title. 

The sisters began playing tennis as young girls at a park across from their home in Georgetown. They were recruited to play at Tuskegee University. So close were they that Margaret waited for her sister to graduate high school so that they could enroll at Tuskegee together. 

Segregation and discrimination forced the ATA to hold most of its tournaments at historically black colleges and universities. These tournaments became social events for affluent blacks. The annual national championships were highly anticipated and included parties, formal dances and fashion shows. 

The ATA operated in a parallel existence to the United States Lawn Tennis Association, now the USTA. Before the 1950s, the USTA refused to allow blacks to compete against whites. This included a talented young player named Althea Gibson who was making noise on the ATA Tour. 

Gibson, younger than the Peters sisters by nearly a decade, moved quickly up the ranks of the ATA Tour. She won the national championship in 1944 and 1945. She suffered a loss in the finals in 1946 before winning 10 straight titles from 1947 to 1956. 

Serena and Venus Williams, seen here during the 2014 Rogers Cup, were not the first dynamic African-American sister act in tennis.
Serena and Venus Williams, seen here during the 2014 Rogers Cup, were not the first dynamic African-American sister act in tennis.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

That loss was to Matilda "Re-Pete" Peters, the younger sister. Matilda is the only African-American woman to ever defeat Gibson. 

Four years later, pressured by ATA officials and Alice Marble, Gibson was invited to compete in the U.S. National Championships, now the U.S. Open. Already in her mid-20s, Gibson made her debut at Forest Lawn in 1950. Two years later, George Stewart would become the first black man to play at the U.S. Open. 

Meanwhile, the Peters sisters, like so many other talented African-American tennis players, remained on the ATA tour. They dominated the ATA, winning 14 doubles championships, a record that still remains. Matilda also won two ATA singles titles. 

By the time color lines began to be broken, the sisters were in their 30s, about the age Venus and Serena Williams are now. One's mid-30s are hardly the years to begin a professional tennis career. 

In 2003, the USTA, the same organization that denied African-Americans a chance to compete during most of the sisters' careers, honored the Peters duo with an achievement award during the Fed Cup quarterfinals in their hometown.

The Peters sisters were also inducted into the USTA's Mid-Atlantic Section Hall of Fame in November 2003. They were inducted into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012. 

Matilda died of pneumonia in May 2003. Margaret died in November 2004. 

It's hard to say how their games would have stacked up against those of Helen Wills Moody and Alice Marble. It would have been nice to see.

However, desegregation doors didn't swing wide open for African-American athletes. As was the case with Jackie Robinson in Major League Baseball and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton in the NBA, in the 1950s only a hand-picked, select few were given opportunities. 

Arthur Ashe Jr. and Althea Gibson, pictured here in 1988, were the first African-Americans to win Grand Slam titles.
Arthur Ashe Jr. and Althea Gibson, pictured here in 1988, were the first African-Americans to win Grand Slam titles.SUSAN RAGAN/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

That's why although they reached prominence in tennis decades before the Williams sisters, it seems odd to classify the Peters sisters as pioneers. After all, they played tennis at Tuskegee, a university that had been offering tennis since the 1890s. 

Long after the Peters sisters retired from tennis, the ATA continued to attract top black players. Lori McNeil, Chanda Rubin and Zina Garrison all played in the ATA. Garrison, a Wimbledon finalist in 1990, won the ATA singles titles in 1979 and 1980 and the doubles titles in 1980 and 1981. 

Instead, consider the Peters sisters forgotten stars. Their stories, buried beneath the weight of segregation, have existed all along. Gibson, the first African-American to win a Grand Slam, is the pioneer. The Peters sisters, like several talented African-American baseball players who made Negro League All-Star teams that left Robinson off, were simply the unlucky uninvited. 

They lacked an invitation, not talent. Those who watched them compete witnessed two dynamic and athletic tennis superstars. Even as they accumulate posthumous accolades, their unearthed stories shine a light on misplaced tennis gems.  

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