Afro-American Women’s Tennis: Beyond Venus and Serena

Debbie says:

Laurie and I have blogged a few times over the years about Venus and Serena Williams, so I was especially interested to read about Margaret and Roumania Peters, two sisters who aced women’s tennis together in the American Tennis Association, the first black sports league to include women.


It’s not surprising that many people don’t know much about black women’s tennis before Althea Gibson, since the black sports leagues didn’t accept women, and the white women’s sports leagues didn’t accept blacks. Where was a black women player, let alone a pair of talented sisters, to go?

According to Steven J. Niven, posting at The Root (link above):

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.”

After doing well in a tennis tournament at historically black Wilberforce University, the sisters were recruited to Tuskegee University in Alabama.

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. … 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.

The Peters sisters apparently weren’t still playing when Gibson desegregated the Grand Slam tournaments. Maybe their names would be familiar now if they’d had a chance on the courts of the wider tennis world. They died in 2003 and 2004, and Margaret lived to see herself and her sister inducted into the Mid-Atlantic Section Hall of Fame of the U.S. Tennis Association.

From now on, I’ll be thinking of them in the same breath as Venus and Serena. A quick internet search reveals no famous pairs of tennis-playing sisters who were not of African descent. Am I missing some?

Thanks to Maya Dusenbery at Feministing for the pointer, and to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s monumental African-American National Biography for the source material.