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.
SOURCE: STEVEN J. NIVEN