Black gymnast Gabrielle Douglas’s successful bid to make the 2012 Olympic team is part of long history of African American participation in gymnastics. While Douglass’s achievement might have caught people off-guard because we don’t see many black athletes competing in gymnastics, the roots of African American participation in the sport dates back more than 160 years. In fact, black men and women were leading specialists in the early development of American gymnastics and the health reform movement.
Gymnastics, a German sport, did not catch on as an American craze until the late 1840s. At that time many leaders believed that urbanization had started to erode the new nation. They worried about disease, vice, and the weak bodies of young middle class white males that no longer grew hardy from farm work. To prevent these problems health reformers recommended various exercises, especially gymnastics. Their concerns started an American health movement, which for the first time had the middle class openly encouraging sports. Seeking an economic opportunity, black athletes like Bostonian Paton Stewart Jr. became leaders in the fields of health and gymnastics.
Stewart opened his first gymnasium in 1849 after the previous owner, a black man named Alexander Dorsey, died. During the 1850s he had one of the best gymnasiums in the nation. Stewart’s business was a 70 x 50 foot building that had the “greatest facilities for all kinds of gymnastic exercise.” He charged between $10-14 a year and attracted 500 pupils including some of the leading citizens like Boston Mayor J.V.C. Smith. Recommending Stewart’s gym, Mayor Smith once wrote “We, the undersigned, citizens of Boston, having witnessed with much pleasure the beneficial results arising from the practice of Gymnastic and Callisthenic exercises, as taught by Prof. Stewart, do cheerfully and cordially recommend him to the public, both as a gentleman, and as a competent teacher of such exercise, with the hope that they will accord to him a generous share of his patronage.” Other leaders believed that Stewart could prevent the rise in crime. Charles Spear, owner and editor of the Prisoner’s Friend, a prison reform journal, wrote, “If parents would send their sons here, there would be less crime in our city. By the excellent management of Mr. Stewart, no profanity or any improper games are allowed. There is perfect order in every department.”
From 1849-1859, middle-class Bostonians only had two options two choose from, they could go to Stewart’s gym, or John B. Bailey’s gym. Bailey migrated to Boston from Baltimore in 1853. Before moving to Boston, Bailey had operated a gymnasium in Baltimore since 1838 where he taught gymnastics and sparring lessons to elite white cliental. He also ran a pistol gallery even though it was illegal for a free black man to own a firearm in Maryland. When he moved to Boston he continued to teach gymnastics, sparring, firearms, and he opened a bowling alley. By the 1860s Bailey stopped teaching gymnastics and concentrated on sparring fulltime and became the leading sparring master in America. While not teaching sparring, he taught his son Parker Nell Bailey gymnastics. Parker, who graduated from Harvard, taught physical culture at the Colored YMCA and at the famed M Street School (now Dunbar High School) in Washington D.C during the 1890s and 1900s.
During the 1800s Black females also played an important role in the American health movement. Stewart’s facility was the only middle class gym that allowed women and Stewart needed a female teacher. So he trained his daughter, Emma, as an instructor, making her one of a handful of female gymnastics teachers in America. She put students through various exercises, and competed in local competitions that her dad hosted.
Even though a number of Harvard students joined Stewart’s gymnasium, Harvard did not hire him in 1859 when the institution opened their first gymnasium. Instead, Harvard secured the services of African American gymnast, and sparring master, Aaron Molineaux Hewlett. Two years later, Paton and his family moved to San Francisco where he remained a leading gymnastics instructor until his death in 1869.
In Cambridge, Aaron Hewlett and his wife Virginia opened up a gymnasium. Madam Hewlett, as she was known, trained women and children and quickly established herself as the leading female gymnastic teacher in America. According to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist and leader in the Muscular Christianity movement, he unfortunately believed most women did not have the strength to practice gymnastics exercises, he thought calisthenics were more appropriate, but he noted that under Madam Hewlett “a good deal of gymnastic enthusiasm is created among female pupils, and it may be, after all, that the deficiency, lies thus far in the teachers.” The Hewlett’s ran their business until Professor Hewlett died in 1871.
Although history has forgotten them, as leaders in the early American health movement and gymnastic teachers, the Stewart’s, the Hewlett’s, and John B. Bailey built an athletic foundation for Olympian Gabrielle Douglass to perform.