Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Fit for Citizenship: Black Sparring Masters, Gymnasium Owners, and the White Body, 1825-1886

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Fit for Citizenship: Black Sparring Masters, Gymnasium Owners, and the White Body, 1825-1886

Article excerpt

There is the Boston Gymnasium in Successful operation, under accomplished proprietor, John B. Bailey, of Baltimore, who, having won golden opinions at home, is daily registering pupils from the wealthy and other circles of Boston and vicinity. A visit to No. 4 Franklin Street will convince all that he has superior facilities for every imaginable mode for exercising the human body.

--William C. Nell, "Business Enterprises of Colored People in Boston" (1854). (1)

Paton Stewart, Jr. Esq. Sir--The exercises of the Gymnasium appear to me to form an important part of the education of all young persons in cities. The modes of education now practiced generally exclude all opportunities for exercise; the consequence is, that the organs of the body are not developed to their full extent, and they are, therefore, unable to perform the functions for which Nature destined them. The Gymnasium is a proper substitute for the natural exercise; and (1), therefore, cordially recommend that all young persons should make the practice of the Gymnasium a part of their education.

--Dr. J. C Warren, Warren's Recommendations (1856). (2)

These recommendations reveal much about the "physical culture" concerns of mid-19th-century Americans. The first quote came from the pen of black abolitionist William C. Nell and the latter is from Dr. J. C. Warren, a Harvard surgeon and longtime promoter of the physical culture movement in Boston. Nell and Warren alluded to the importance of physical culture at a time when men, more specifically white middle-class men, worried openly about their bodies. For Dr. Warren, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others, the rapid growth of urban America and new sedentary habits of the white middle class posed great dangers to "the race." (3) Historian Harvey Green, author of Fit in America: Health, Fitness, Sport, and American Society, noted that "nearly all the advocates of gymnastics, calisthenics, and physical education began from a series of deeply critical premises about American culture." Urban living brought congestion, crime, and deadly diseases such as tuberculosis or '"consumption," which for health reformers were "sure sign[s] that the populace was degenerating."(4)

To combat these threats health reformers advocated exercise, especially the patronage of gymnasiums where clients could learn under the tutelage of "Professors." "Physical health," in the words of social reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was "'a necessary condition of all permanent success." "Guaranty us against physical degeneracy," he argued, "and we can risk all other perils." (5) Because college students have sedentary study habits, they were not immune from this critique. They were seen as part of the problem, not the solution, and more than others they needed "mens sana in corpore sano," a sound mind in a sound body. Supporting this concept. Harvard University officials built a brand new gymnasium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1859 and hired a black man, Aaron Molineaux Hewlett, who became the first physical education instructor in U.S. higher education.

While African American men such as John B. Bailey and Paton Stewart. Jr.. played an important role in the development of the health and physical culture movement in the United States, for the most part their experiences and contributions have been left out of the scholarship. (6) Boston was the hub for health reformers, and in 1886 Edwin Bacon, a chronicler of Boston's history, reported that "the earliest and best [gyms] were conducted by colored men." (7) However, Eliot Gorn, Harvey Green, Stephen Hardy, Roberta J. Park, and James C. Whorton, who have detailed the development of the U.S. physical culture movement, have assumed that the leading advocates for physical exercise and improved citizenship in antebellum American society were white men. (8) While African American "professors of the manly arts" did not advertise their race, and white contemporaries rarely mentioned it, the examination of the activities of John Bailey, Aaron Hewlett, and Paton Stewart sheds light on the role African Americans played to help the nation achieve "a necessary condition of all permanent success. …

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