They paved the way!
We all know of tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams, but before these Compton icons dominated the courts, there were two other talented Black sisters who changed the landscape of the game: Margaret and Matilda Peters. According to Encyclopedia.com, Margaret was born in 1915 in Washington, D.C. with Matilda being born just two years later in 1917. The sisters began playing tennis when they were young, practicing at a park across the street from their home in Georgetown. As teens, they began playing competitively, joining the American Tennis Association (ATA).
The ATA was created in 1916 in an effort to organize Negro Tennis Clubs across the United States. According to The Bleacher Report, today, it is still in operation and is credited as the oldest Black sports organization in the nation. The ATA hosted many of its tournaments at HBCUs, the annual championships becoming major social events for affluent African-Americans, featuring fashion shows, formal dances, and parties.
In 1935, Margaret was offered a full scholarship to Tuskegee University, choosing to forgo her offer for two years until her sister Matilda finished high school. In 1937, the duo went to Tuskegee together, graduating from the university in 1941 with degrees in physical education before earning masters degrees in physical education from NYU.
The sisters thrived in the ATA, an organization that served as an alternative to the United States Lawn Tennis Association, which refused to accept Black athletes. From 1938-1941 and 1944-1953, the sisters won 14 ATA doubles championships, Matilda also winning two ATA singles titles. They became known for their powerful backhands and quick shop shots, gaining celebrity status across the country and becoming known as the “famous Peters sisters.”
The rise of other Black tennis superstars like Althea Gibson in the ATA put pressure on the U.S. National Championships to open up their tournaments to Black players. Gibson, who was younger than the Peters sisters, also made a name for herself in the ATA circuit, winning the national championship in 1944 and 1945 before suffering a loss in the finals to Matilda in 1946. Matilda remains the only Black woman to ever defeat Gibson on the court. Gibson would go on to debut in the U.S. National Championships at Forest Lawn in 1950, but by then, the Peters sisters were already in their 30s.
Despite their success and notoriety, the Peters sisters never made any money from their playing days, tennis being considered an amateur sport. The women paid for their own equipment, training, and travel expenses and used their jobs as teachers to fund their careers. Margaret never married, working as a special education teacher in Washington, D.C. Matilda married James Walker in 1957, the couple having two children. Matilda worked in the D.C. public school system and as a professor at Howard University from 1964 to 1981 and ran many tennis camps for underserved youth in the city.
While the Peters sisters paved the way, other women like Gibson and the Williams sisters benefited from their sacrifice and went on to change the game of tennis as we know it. In 1977, the Peters sisters were inducted into the Tuskegee Hall of Fame. Matilda passed away of pneumonia in May 2003, her sister Margaret passing the following year in November 2004. The sisters were posthumously honored, the United States Tennis Association’s (USTA) Mid-Atlantic Section Hall of Fame inducting them in November 2003 and the Black Tennis Hall of Fame inducting the sisters in 2012.
Long after the sisters have left, they continue to impact the landscape, and it is important that their story be preserved. Let’s make sure we give them the flowers they so richly deserve and keep their names alive. Because of the Peters sisters, we can!
Before Serena and Venus Williams, Margaret and Matilda Peters were the talented sisters in tennis. (l to r) Margaret and Matilda Roumania Peters. Photo Courtesy of Associated Press/Bleacher Report