The History of Black Women’s Exercise with Ava Purkiss

Ava Purkiss is a historian and assistant professor of American Culture and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan, and holds a courtesy appointment in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Michigan Medicine. She is the author of Fit Citizens: A History of Black Women’s Exercise from Post-Reconstruction to Postwar America (UNC Press, 2023). Her research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of race, gender, health and the body, and she specializes in Black Women’s History. In this interview, we discuss Fit Citizens and exercise culture within the racial justice movement.

Fit Citizens: A History of Black Women’s Exercise from Post-Reconstruction to Postwar America by Ava Purkiss

Greg: What led to your interest in the history of Black women’s exercise?

Ava: The history of Black women’s exercise captured my imagination for several reasons. At one point in my graduate education, I was interested in labor history—particularly African-American domestic workers. As I was working on this subject, I realized that we know so much more about how Black women labored, about their work lives and struggles—about how their bodies became vessels for low-wage employment. We know less about how they “labored” for themselves, how their bodies served as vessels of care and health seeking, and how their physicality served other non-work purposes. I became intrigued with the counterintuitive ways in which Black women used their bodies.

Of course, exercise is not the only way to explore counterintuitive histories of Black women’s physicality, but I wondered about Black histories of fitness, as there was no historical monograph written on the subject. Once I started performing archival and primary source research, I found a rich history of African-American women’s exercise that eventually turned into my book, Fit Citizens.

During and after college, I also worked in the fitness industry (a gym and a weight loss clinic, separately) for short stints. Those experiences gave me a unique perspective on the racialization, gendering and classism of American fitness culture that shaped my approach to archives of fitness. In particular, interest in fitness spans across race, class, ethnicity and neighborhood, but the privileges and access to a life of health and fitness remains real for some and aspirational for others.

Greg: How did the historical development of an exercise culture among African-Americans relate to the development of exercise culture in America as a whole?

Ava: This is a question I asked myself while writing this book, but in the inverse: How did the development of exercise culture in America as a whole relate to the historical development of an exercise culture among African-Americans? To answer this question, I looked at intraracial engagements with fitness and realized that African-Americans created their own culture of exercise. While their engagement with fitness followed along the same timeline as the national enthusiasm for exercise, their histories of forced physical labor and constrained mobility created a unique orientation to physical activity. African-Americans thought of their quest for fitness as one of many ways to distinguish themselves from their pasts as enslaved, overworked, downtrodden subjects, and they tied health and exercise efforts to racial uplift movements and struggles for freedom in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Greg: How did exercise become linked to the broader racial justice movement?

Ava: Because exercise requires certain abilities or resources—mobility, space, energy, workout facilities, money and time—it has often been connected to issues of social justice. African-Americans, in particular, have struggled to secure these resources since the modern exercise movement began. Black people linked issues like recreational segregation and outright exclusion from fitness institutions to larger campaigns of Black citizenship struggles and the long civil rights movement. Black women worked mightily to ensure that Black children had access to places of exercise, fitness and recreation, like beaches, pools, parks and playgrounds, in the early twentieth century. They perceived these spaces as critical sites of health, childhood development and citizenship training.

Even in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when recreation would seem like a trivial issue, women like Jane Edna Hunter used the Phillis Wheatley Association in Cleveland, Ohio, to provide physical education, playgrounds and summer camps to neglected and low-income Black women and children. Some of the most violent civil rights battles occurred at places where people sometimes seek exercise—beaches and pools. The places where people seek to remake themselves and their bodies have been part and parcel of Black movements for racial justice in the twentieth century.

Greg: How was the view of exercise different for Black women versus Black men?

Ava Purkiss, author of Fit Citizens
Ava Purkiss (umich.edu)

Ava: One might assume that exercise and fitness culture fell squarely within the domain of Black manhood and masculinity. I argue in my book, however, that Black women served as the vanguard of Black fitness culture since they actively sought to disseminate information on health and exercise, challenged segregated spaces of fitness, led exercise instruction classes and became responsible for family, community and racial fitness.

But for Black women, exercise functioned as both a blessing and a burden. They experienced social pressures to implement physical education, recreation and public health fitness programs as a form of gendered racial uplift work. Additionally, since their bodies “reproduced” the race, Black women’s physical fitness ostensibly provided the key to black progress during a highly eugenic period in American history. African-Americans placed additional pressure on Black women to be “fit” in order to produce “fit” Black progeny and a healthy Black race. This racial and gender milieu raised the stakes of fitness for Black women.

Greg: What most surprised you as you were researching and writing this book?

Ava: What surprised me most was the number and diversity of Black people who invested in exercise and other fitness behaviors, like dieting, across regions, time and ideological orientations. Some recognizable figures in the book who advocated exercise include Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells, Alice Dunbar Nelson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Michelle Obama (who appears in the epilogue). Other figures include Olivia Davidson (who helped to get Tuskegee Institute established and was Booker T. Washington’s second wife), Mary P. Evans (the editor of Woman’s Era, a 19th-century newspaper by and for Black women) and Freda De Knight (the food editor for Ebony magazine).

There are also many unnamed African-American historical actors in the book, some of whom appear in sports and fitness photographs or wrote anonymously in Black newspapers and magazines seeking exercise advice. The earliest source I cite from this list is Mary P. Evans, who wrote about the benefits of exercise in 1894, and of course, Michelle Obama, whose Let’s Move! campaign championed exercise in the 2010s. These historical actors held different social and political commitments, varying visions of Black progress and personal histories. Still, at least in my book, they are all united by their championing of Black fitness.

Check out Ava Purkiss’s book Fit Citizens to learn more about the history of Black women’s exercise. And for more interviews like this one, visit The KineSophy Library.