Margaret Peters was born in 1915 in Washington, D.C., and Matilda Roumania Peters was born two years later in the same city. The girls began playing tennis for fun when Margaret was about ten years old. They played in a park across from their home in Georgetown. They began to play competitively when they were teenagers in the 1930s. The Peters sisters 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
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, a record that has not yet been broken. As of 2003 Venus and Serena Williams have won ten Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) doubles titles together. 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 the history of her own when she became the first African-American woman to play competitive tennis against whites in 1950. This was exactly a decade after Jimmy McDaniel became the first African-American man to play against a white man, tennis legend Don Budge, at a match held in New York.
The sisters played mainly on clay courts and many of their matches were held in the evenings under floodlights. They were known for their slice serves strong backhands and quick chop shots. They traveled to regional and national ATA tournaments, which were usually held at black colleges across the country. Despite their successes on the court, the Peters sisters did not make a living from tennis. At that time tennis was an amateur sport. Not only did the players receive no compensation, but they also had to pay for their own equipment and travel expenses. In order to continue funding their tennis careers, the Peters sisters got teaching certificates and worked as teachers.
Both Margaret and Matilda lived in Washington, D.C., during their ATA and teaching careers. Margaret never married and had a career as a special education teacher. Matilda married James Walker in 1957. He was a math professor at Tuskegee University and he died in 1992. They had two children together, a daughter named Frances Della and a son named James George. Matilda also worked as a teacher. In the 1950s she taught at Howard University and from 1964 to 1981 she taught for the Washington, D.C., public school system. For many years she worked at Dunbar High School. She also directed tennis camps for the department of recreation to expose underprivileged children to the game.
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 died on May 16, 2003, from pneumonia. Margaret Peters is 88 years old and suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.