Recognition for Hometown Tennis Heroes of Jim Crow Era

Margaret and Matilda Roumania Peters.

Few people know that the Williams sisters weren’t the first African American siblings to take tennis by storm. Before Venus and Serena, Margaret and Roumania Peters were an unbeatable pair in the Jim Crow tennis era of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Council member Jack Evans will ask the District Council to name Rose Park tennis courts at 26th & O Streets after the sisters.

Having begun playing tennis as young girls in Georgetown, the sisters were eventually offered tennis scholarships to Tuskegee University in Alabama. Due to segregation, the Peters sisters could play only in the all-black American Tennis Association. Established in 1916, ATA is the oldest black sports organization in the country.

During their time in Alabama and for a decade after leaving, the Peters sisters dominated the women’s game, winning 14 doubles titles between 1938 and 1941 and between 1944 and 1953. Roumania won ATA national singles titles in 1944 and 1946. Films of their ATA victories were shown at black movie theaters, including the Mott on 26th Street NW near P Street in Georgetown, where they were local heroes. The Peters also played matches in front of the British royalty on a trip to the Caribbean. Celebrities such as actor-dancer Gene Kelly practiced with them when he was in Washington.

Both Peters sisters earned master’s degrees in physical education from New York University and returned to Washington to work. The little-known predecessors of Althea Gibson, who, in 1956, became the first person of color to win a Grand Slam title (and went on to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals), their wider recognition is long overdue.

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