Fit for citizenship: black sparring masters, gymnasium owners, and the white body, 1825-1886.

Author:Moore, Louis

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." (9) If white Americans linked physical culture to preserving the nation, what was the significance of the presence of African American men in this movement? African American men. who lacked citizenship rights, were able to demonstrate their fitness for equal rights by becoming successful business owners and experts in a field that a number of leading Americans understood as fundamental to preserving the nation's future.

Most antebellum black leaders believed that economic success proved African Americans' fitness for U.S. citizenship. These business enterprises countered the idea, as historian Leon Litwack noted, that "the Negro was simply unfit--physically and mentally--to perform skilled labor or enter the professions." (10) Historian Juliet E. K. Walker in The History of Black Business in America, pointed out that "the businesses established by antebellum free blacks were capitalist enterprises oriented toward the market and geared to making profit." (11) Black sparring masters and gymnasium owners viewed white middle class males as their potential clientele and used their position in the physical culture movement to market their skills and propel themselves upward in antebellum American society. In many ways the business activities of these black athletes mirrored those of African American barbers. Physical culture specialists and barbers were skilled workers in an era when most African American men were confined to unskilled manual labor. Indeed, two leading black sparring masters, Joe Battis of Philadelphia and John Bailey, were barbers who used their shops to give sparring lessons and exhibitions.

Historian Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr., in Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom reported that economically successful black barbers held important positions in society, but that success came at the price of racial exclusion and many had to bar African Americans as clients. "As free black businessmen," Bristol observed, "they needed white guardians to protect their fragile independence." (12) Black barbers, like these gym owners, built their wealth and respectability by catering to middle-class and elite whites and used advertisements to appeal to their sensibilities about luxury and comfort. This required the investment of considerable amounts of money in order to operate prosperous and respectable businesses. The black barber who created a "first-class barbershop ... quickly became a favorite destination for white men." (13) Likewise, black gym owners advertised their establishments as "first class," offering regimented exercise as well as middle-class comfort. Harvey Green found that "the gymnasium became one urban gathering place where, like the church, groups of like-minded people might both get to know their neighbors and learn ways to combat the health and moral hazards of the big city." (14) To maintain their important white customers, the barber, and in all likelihood the black gym owner, had to show deference to their white clients. For successful antebellum black businesses that catered to whites. Juliet Walker made it clear that, "deference ha[d] always been a requisite."(15)

Although they did not write nearly as much as white intellectuals Oliver Wendell Holmes and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, or white gym owners such as Dr. Dio Lewis or Dr. George Windship, the black gym owners left us some evidence that helps us understand their roles in the physical culture movement. Advertisements placed in local newspapers and accounts by white contemporaries allow the exploration of the activities of black physical culture specialists and the discussion of African Americans' roles in creating "fit" citizens, men capable of living up to the demands of the new American nationality. These advertisements in particular show that African American men understood the language of business and were attuned to the public discourse surrounding good health, physical exercise, and middle-class desires for comfort.


Starting in the late 1790s sparring masters or "professors," as they called themselves, advertised their skills in local newspapers. Respectable sparring masters sold a healthy lifestyle and manly reassurances to middle-and upper-class men who comprised the majority of their clientele. While some naysayers feared that sparring was too closely related to the brutal sport of "prizefighting," by the 1820s a few critics had started to promote the virtues of sparring. They realized that sparring improved fitness and discipline, and most importantly it allowed the middle and upper classes to protect their class privileges through self-defense. (16) Those few men who had pugilistic skills and a sense of refinement tried to cater to these middle-class concerns. We can see this in an 1838 ad for sparring lessons by the white boxer James Reed, who told potential customers that pugilism was good for "developing the muscular system, and recommended by the most eminent physicians as the most invigorating exercise for gentlemen of sedentary habits; also as defen[s]e against the attacks of the blackguard and street brawler, [was] too well known to comment on." (17) Reed seemed to understand the language that would attract paying customers.

The idea of class distinction went both ways. While their clients learned self-defense, the instructors entered into a respectable profession. But the "professor" had to cultivate an image of respectability. Respectable professors trained other men, but they themselves avoided engaging in prizefights. Most rented buildings, outfitted their establishment with the latest equipment, and charged dues to support it and to limit their clientele to those who could afford these services. The dues also...

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