Physical and Ideological Cases against Black Citizenship: An Excerpt from “Fit Citizens”

The following is an excerpt from Fit Citizens: A History of Black Women’s Exercise from Post-Reconstruction to Postwar America by Ava Purkiss, available everywhere books are sold.

book cover for Fit Citizens: A History of Black Women's Exercise from Post Reconstruction to Postwar America by Ava Purkiss

Unfit Citizens: Physical and Ideological Cases against Black Citizenship

At the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans were keenly aware of the legal, social, and ideological barriers to full-fledged citizenship. Despite the promises of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which defined African Americans as emancipated citizens with equal protection and voting rights, Black people found that these rights existed more in theory than in practice. From the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to 1901, the “nadir of race relations,” African Americans experienced racial terrorism, political oppression, disenfranchisement, and the reification of Jim Crow laws through the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896. White landowners coerced Black people into exploitative farm labor contracts, while other African Americans toiled in arduous and conscribed low-wage work as convict laborers, laundresses, domestics, and cooks. To the horror of many Black families, white mobs lynched and violated Black men and women for unsubstantiated infractions during this period.

Racial ideologies about Black people’s unsuitability for citizenship undergirded these daily abuses. Many white individuals argued that African Americans showed a physical, mental, and moral lack of fitness for citizenship. While historians have well documented these ideologies, they are important to underscore to gain a clear understanding of racialized arguments against citizenship and to appreciate fully why Black individuals responded to this slander through physical culture.

Many white individuals argued that African Americans showed a physical, mental, and moral lack of fitness for citizenship.

White politicians, writers, health practitioners, statisticians, and other “experts” gave African Americans good reason to lose post-Reconstruction optimism. They provided specious justifications for why Black people could not, and should not, be entirely incorporated into the body politic. In 1891, writer and eventual U.S. senator William Cabell Bruce of Maryland outlined the profound physical and character flaws he perceived in Black people. Bruce drew attention to “the wooly hair, the receding forehead, the flat nose, the thick lips and the protruding jaw of the negro” that marked the “physical lines of separation” between African Americans and white citizens. These physical distinctions prefaced the intellectual and moral deficiencies Bruce outlined in his screed. He argued that African Americans were “saucy, vagrant, improvident, without self-restraint, and subject to no external discipline,” as well as “notoriously wanting in all the characteristics that constitute thrifty or useful citizens.” Black people had shown little political and intellectual progress since emancipation, a self-evident fact according to Bruce. Legislators brought these ideas into Congress and made disenfranchisement a political and material reality for African Americans.

Frederick L. Hoffman, a statistician employed by the Prudential Life Insurance Company, supported his theory on the “Negro Problem” through anthropometric analysis, vital statistics, and actuarial science in 1896. In Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, Hoffman, who claimed to be “fortunately free from a personal bias” because of his German immigrant status, provided ostensibly objective data to support eugenics-laden ideas of white supremacy. He noted that African Americans inherited racial “tendencies” toward crime, pauperism, and sexual immorality. These tendencies resulted from both moral and physical origins, as he concluded that Black populations suffered from deficiencies in weight, height, lung capacity, chest circumference, strength, and a host of other bodily measures.

Hoffman used exercise as both a rhetorical and an anthropometric device for devaluing Black physicality. Remarkably, he opined, “The mean lifting strength of the white is in excess of that of the negro. The prevailing opinion that the negro is on the whole more capable of enduring physical exercise is therefore disproved.” Hoffman’s conclusions would have an uncritical reader believe that the end of slavery was physically ruinous for African Americans, as they now (that is, in freedom) struggled with “exercise endurance” whereas they once (that is, in slavery) performed physically demanding labor seemingly without trouble. As the chapter later shows, African Americans confronted this construction of Black weakness through physical culture. But this confrontation proved an uphill battle. Assertions of physical debility, of which exercise endurance served as an essential data point, factored into Hoffman’s presentation of Black people as hopelessly unfit.

Hoffman used exercise as both a rhetorical and an anthropometric device for devaluing Black physicality.

Hoffman further argued that freedom from slavery and opportunities for education had done very little to advance the race and that since emancipation, Black people had failed to lift themselves to a “higher level of citizenship.” Inherent “race traits,” not environmental factors, he contended, explained their high mortality rates: “It is not in the conditions of life, but in the race traits and tendencies that we find the causes of the excessive mortality” (emphasis in original). Eventually, the disproportionate mortality rate would lead African Americans to self-eliminate: “So long as these tendencies are persisted in, so long as immorality and vice are a habit of life of the vast majority of the colored population, the effect will be to increase the mortality by hereditary transmission of weak constitutions, and to lower still further the rate of natural increase, until the births fall below the deaths, and gradual extinction results.” Arguments like this framed citizenship as a wasted civic benefit for an inherently unfit race. Hoffman’s ideas presumed that not only did Black “tendencies” conflict with American civic virtues, but African Americans would not need enduring political inclusion because they would not survive much longer to enjoy it.

Ava Purkiss is assistant professor of women’s and gender studies and American culture at the University of Michigan.