Editor’s note: For Women’s History Month, The Root is spotlighting less famous figures from the African American National Biography, whose stories exemplify the extraordinary, and often unsung, accomplishments of African-American women from our past.
With their combined 26 tennis grand-slam singles titles and 30 grand slams in doubles, few could deny that Venus and Serena Williams are the greatest sibling act in professional sports in the modern era. But they weren’t the first black sisters to dominate the sport of tennis. That accolade goes to the Peters sisters, Roumania and Margaret, who, from the late 1930s to early 1950s, dominated the doubles events held by the American Tennis Association, the nation’s oldest black sports organization to include women. The career of the Peters sisters casts a fresh light on the rarely explored world of women’s sports in the segregated Jim Crow era.
Both sisters were born in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Margaret in 1915 and Matilda Roumania in 1917. The Peters sisters grew up in a predominantly black, working-class section of D.C., a few blocks from the Rose Park playground at 26th and O streets, an area described by one historian as central to black community life in Georgetown between the world wars.
It provided a rare communal space where young men and women played basketball and volleyball, and where the Peters sisters played on one of the few tennis courts open to African Americans in the city. As an adult, Roumania Peters Walker recalled that the court was covered in “sand, dirt, rocks, everything. We would have to get out there in the morning and pick up the rocks, and sweep the line and put some dry lime on there.” It may have been during their early teenage years playing at Rose Park that the sisters earned their enduring nicknames of “Pete and Repeat,” a well-known, if corny, riddle, and also the title of a 1931 movie directed by Fatty Arbuckle.
By 1936, 21-year-old Margaret and 19-year-old Roumania (as she was known) showed enough promise to be invited to the annual ATA tournament held that year at Wilberforce University, an HBCU in Xenia, Ohio. Roumania would lose the final to reigning champion Lulu Ballard of Philadelphia, but the sisters’ performances were noted by the sports directors of several historically black colleges, and they were recruited by Tuskegee in Alabama.
It was likely that the sisters were impressed by Tuskegee’s dynamic athletic director, Cleveland Abbott, who had been recruited by Booker T. Washington and initially worked as an agricultural chemist for George Washington Carver. Abbott began as the football coach at Tuskegee, but it was his dedication to women’s sports as athletic director that was his most enduring legacy.
In women’s track and field, Abbott would inspire a dynasty that dominated collegiate sports from the 1930s to 1950s and included Alice Coachman, the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal (in the high jump at the 1948 London Games). In addition, Tuskegee, where tennis had been played since the 1890s, had by the 1930s invested in 14 tennis courts, mostly with Alabama-red-clay surfaces, and some floodlit for evening play. Moreover, Abbott offered both Peters sisters full four-year tennis scholarships and was willing to wait a year so that Roumania could finish high school. Both sisters would enter Tuskegee on full scholarships in 1937.
During their time in Alabama (1937-41) and for a decade after leaving, Margaret and Roumania would dominate the women’s game at the end of the Jim Crow era. Their victories at the ATA were shown at black movie theaters, including the Mott in their home city of Washington, and they became local heroes back home in Georgetown.
The sisters’ opponents feared them for their excellent slice serves (a form of underspin put on the ball to keep it low to the ground), chop shots (a shot rarely taught today, in which underspin is put on the ball during a return of serve) and strong backhands. Roumania won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tennis championship (for Southern HBCUs) during her time at Tuskegee. But their fame on the tennis court largely derived from the 14 doubles titles they won between 1938 and 1941 and between 1944 and 1953. Roumania also won ATA national singles titles in 1944 and 1946.
In winning her second title, she defeated the up-and-coming Althea Gibson, who later won 10 ATA national singles titles. Gibson would go on to win singles titles at the 1956 French Open (the first grand-slam event won by a person of color), Wimbledon in 1957, and the U.S. title in 1957 and 1958. The Jackie Robinson of tennis in the U.S. and around the world, the working-class Gibson helped pave the way for Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison, the Williams sisters and other black tennis players of the modern game. Roumania Peters is the only black woman known to have defeated Gibson at a major competition.
After graduating from Tuskegee in 1941 with degrees in physical education, the Peters sisters continued to play amateur tennis in segregated regional and national ATA tournaments. Professionalism came late to tennis, thus preserving it until the 1960s as a game for people with some financial means. As amateurs, the sisters had to pay for their own equipment, entry fees and travel expenses.
Their success at ATA events led to some fame. They played matches in front of British royalty on a trip to the Caribbean, and celebrities such as the actor Gene Kelly practiced with both Roumania and Margaret while in the Washington, D.C., area. But their fame and celebrity was far removed from that of the Williams sisters from Compton, Calif., six decades later.
Both Peters sisters earned master’s degrees in physical education from New York University and returned to Washington to work. Margaret became a special education teacher, and Roumania taught at Howard University in the 1950s and in the D.C. public school system from 1964 until 1981. Roumania also taught tennis to underprivileged children through the D.C. Department of Recreation.
In 1977 the sisters were inducted into the Tuskegee Hall of Fame. Roumania died in 2003 from pneumonia, the year the United States Tennis Association presented the sisters with an “achievement award” prior to a Federation Cup match. The USTA inducted both sisters into the Mid-Atlantic Section Hall of Fame the same year. Margaret died the following year.
Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.
Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.