Decades before Venus and Serena Williams overpowered the sport of tennis, two other talented African American women changed the face of women’s tennis. Margaret and Matilda Peters, affectionately known as ‘Pete” and Repeat’. The Peters made history with their doubles record from the 1930s to the 1950s. At a time when African Americans were not allowed to compete against whites, the Peters sisters played in the American Tennis Association, which was created specifically to give blacks a forum to play tennis competitively.
Born just two years apart in Washington, DC., the sisters began to play competitively when they were teenagers in the 1930s. Margaret and Roumania (also known as Matilda), both played for the American Tennis Association (ATA), which was created in 1916 to organize Negro Tennis Clubs across the country and to provide competitions for African-American tennis players.
At that time tennis, like most other sports, was segregated so African Americans were not allowed to compete against whites. Prior to the ATA, African-American tennis players could only participate in invitational and interstate tournaments. At one such event in New York in 1916 the organizers came up with the idea of a national association for African-American tennis players.
The ATA was officially formed on November 30, 1916, in Washington, D.C. The first tournament sponsored by the ATA did not even offer a competition for women’s doubles. The 1917 national championship tournament in Baltimore only had three events, which were men’s singles, women’s singles, and men’s doubles.
In 1935 Margaret Peters was offered a full scholarship to attend Tuskegee University. She had been recruited by the athletic director Cleveland Leigh Abbott, who noticed her playing in the ATA. Margaret was reluctant to leave her family in Washington, D.C., so she waited for Matilda to finish high school and then the two sisters went to Tuskegee in 1937. They both graduated from college in 1941 with degrees in physical education. The sisters then moved to New York where they earned master’s degrees in physical education from New York University.
During and after college, the Peters sisters dominated the ATA. Between 1938-1941 and 1944-1953 they won 14 ATA doubles championships.
Matilda Peters also won two singles ATA titles in 1944 and 1946. For the second title she defeated the legendary Althea Gibson. Gibson later went on to make history of her own when she became the first African-American woman to play competitive tennis against whites in 1950.
During their reign as ATA champions, the Peters sisters were quite famous. They were often asked to pose for publicity photographs and they even played exhibition matches for English royalty. Compared to the other successful African-American women tennis players such as Althea Gibson and the Williams sisters, the Peters sisters had not received much recognition for their accomplishments. However, there has been some renewed interest in their role in tennis history. In 1977 the Peters sisters were inducted into the Tuskegee Hall of Fame. In 2003 they were given an achievement award by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and inducted into the USTA’s Mid-Atlantic Section Hall of Fame.
Matilda Peters Walker, died on May 16, 2003 at the age of 85. She had the distinction of being the only African American woman known to have beaten Althea Gibson, the youngster to whom the sisters eventually passed the torch. Margaret Peters passed away on November 3, 2004, just one week shy of her 90th birthday. [midatlanticusta.com]