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Jacqueline Jones, Chair 128 Inner Campus Dr., Stop B7000, GAR 1.104 Austin, TX 78712-1739 • 512-471-3261

Ava Purkiss receives two-year fellowship from University of Virginia's Woodson Institute

Posted: June 5, 2014
Ava Purkiss, Ph.D. Candidate, UT History

Ava Purkiss, Ph.D. Candidate, UT History

Ava Purkiss, a doctoral candidate in the History program at UT Austin who investigates African American women’s physical culture in the early twentieth century, has won a two-year pre-doctoral fellowship from The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, for 2014-2016.

Ms. Purkiss’ dissertation examines the economic, political, and social barriers to exercise for African American women and the ways in which they circumvented those barriers and sought health, beauty, and recreation through physical culture. She is also working on a project exploring the sexual and reproductive politics of enslaved wet nursing in the antebellum period. Her other research interests include labor history, fat studies, and food history.  She earned her BA in psychology from Dickinson College and an MA in African and African Diaspora Studies from Florida International University in her hometown of Miami, FL.

“My dissertation, ‘Mind, Soul, Body, and Race’: Black Women’s Purposeful Exercise, 1900-1939,” explains Purkiss, “examines the ways in which black women participated in the physical culture movement of the early twentieth century. Starting in the late nineteenth century and tapering off with the Great Depression, fitness enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and educational institutions spearheaded the physical culture movement that advocated health through calisthenics, gymnastics, sports, strength training, and dieting.  Physical culturists emphasized the benefits of women’s exercise including improved posture, poise, reproductive health, and beauty.  However, the majority of literature on women’s exercise represented the healthy, fit, and beautiful body as white and affluent, leaving out black women who were also advocates of physical culture. With this project, I seek to place black women squarely within the history of purposeful exercise, health, and physical fitness.”

Purkiss’ research shows that despite segregation, disenfranchisement, racism, sexism, medical exploitation, and limited access to hospitals, clinics, gyms, sporting leagues, playgrounds, and physical culture clubs, black women actively participated in sports and exercise programs in search of health, beauty, and recreation.

“Scholarship on the history of exercise is virtually silent about how black women were a part of Americans’ enthusiasm for health and physical perfection in the twentieth century,” she says. ”This historiographical blind spot made me curious about how black women were actually engaging with the movement, and where I could find evidence, if it existed, of their exercise behaviors.  Since I began this project, I have found evidence of their participation in numerous sources including:  black newspapers, diaries, school yearbooks, church records, magazines, personal letters, memoirs, essays, pamphlets, advice literature, college catalogues, and photographs.  For the women I study, exercise was necessary to achieving holistic health, a fit body was essential to their definition of beauty, and calisthenics were enjoyable forms of recreation.  Considering their investment in purposeful exercise, I argue that in the early twentieth century, black women engaged in physical culture to literally and figuratively shape the black female body and create a new vision of fit black womanhood.”

“My interest in the history of black women’s physical culture stems from my previous research on black domestic workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  I looked at the ways in which black domestics practiced self-care given the demands of their time and labor. With my dissertation, I want to explore the exercise element of black women’s self-care and understand how this kind of black physicality was at odds with dominant portrayals of black women in the early twentieth century.  In other words, I examine how purposeful exercise was in contradistinction to widespread representations of black women as lazy, overweight, disease-ridden, unattractive, and unfit for citizenship, a tension that is underexplored in the scholarship on black women.”  

“Apart from historiographical contributions, this project also has contemporary significance. Black health and fitness have become and will continue to be critical issues for many national, state, and local health programs. The White House’s Let’s Move! campaign, state health department studies, and black women’s workout support groups seek to address black obesity and prevent its accompanying diseases through exercise promotion.  While these programs attempt to tackle challenges to black health, rarely do they consider the history of physical culture in the development of programs and policies. This is especially crucial for black women who are targets in the current war on obesity.  The oft-cited statistic that half of black women are obese renders them problems that increase preventable healthcare costs, require national attention and legislation, and intervention from the weight-loss industry.  My work hopes to place these programs within a longer history of black fitness and challenge long-standing assumptions about black women’s physical lives.”

Ms. Purkiss has already conducted research at a number of archives for her dissertation, including:

  • Chicago History Museum
  • Library of Congress
  • Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University
  • Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library)
  • The Wisconsin Historical Society
  • The Harold Washington Library (Chicago Public Library)
  • Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at the Woodson Regional Library (Chicago Public Library)
  • Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin
  • The Schlesinger Library at Harvard University
  • David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University
  • H. J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas at Austin
  • Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Library at Emory University
  • The Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley
  • The Robert W. Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center
  • The African American Research Library and Cultural Center (Broward County Library)


Ava hopes to visit the Hampton University archives, the Urban Archives Collection at Temple University, and the Western Reserve Historical Society.

In addition to the two-year fellowship at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, Ava’s work has also been funded by the German Historical Institute, the Texas State Historical Association, the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University, the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University, the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies at UT, and the College Scholarships Foundation.

“What excites me the most about this project is researching the strategies black women used to participate in the physical culture movement,” she says. “On its face, gaining admission to gyms and playgrounds seems frivolous but black women noted how this access had serious implications for black public health, eugenics, citizenship, racial uplift, and social justice.  Although they faced seemingly insurmountable challenges to health, fitness, and exercise, black women found creative ways to not only participate in the movement, but to innovate it and make it their own. For instance, scores of black women built “church gyms” and served as gym directors to church patrons because they could not use the superior facilities of white-only YWCAs and other segregated spaces of physical culture.”

“Now that I am in the research phase of my dissertation, what has been a pleasant surprise is how useful the archives at UT have been for my work. The H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports holds the world’s largest collection of physical culture material and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History also has fascinating collections on the physical training programs for women at UT in the first half of the twentieth century. Both archives have been instrumental in getting my project off the ground.”

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See also:

“‘Home Economics Training is for the Improvement of Home and Family Life?’: African American Women Professionals and Home Economics Training in Texas, 1930-1950,” by Ava Purkiss, on Not Even Past:
https://notevenpast.org/home-economics-training-improvement-home-and-family-life-african-american-women-professiona/

Book review of Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction by Michele Mitchell by Ava Purkiss, featured on Not Even Past:
https://notevenpast.org/righteous-propagation-african-americans-and-politics-racial-destiny-after-reconstruction-2004/

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