Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett and his family thrived as educators, lawyers, activists – and as Othello

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History Cambridge partners with organizations across the city to improve and expand historical records. This week, our friends at the Cambridge Black History Project are our Did you know? guests.

In this photograph from 1861, Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett appears as majestic, confident and dignified. (Photo: George Kendall Warren, courtesy National Museum of African American History and Culture)

This remarkable portrayal of Aaron Molyneaux (also spelled Molineaux) Hewlett might intrigue US history students, as this sophisticated black man lived in the United States at a time when most people who looked like him were enslaved and considered to be. subhumans. Even those who were free were generally limited to a small number of occupations. Hewlett, however, has managed to find a way to thrive here in Cambridge.

Aaron Hewlett was a pioneer in the field of physical culture and promoted the use of creative movements and specialized equipment to achieve well-being; he believed that physical form was the foundation of mental and moral form. He came to Cambridge with his family in 1859 to become the first director of the new Harvard gymnasium; he was also the school’s first black instructor. He taught gymnastics, baseball and boxing, coached sports teams and supervised gym equipment. Modern sports performance trainer Ron Jones talks about Hewlett’s classic knowledge of physical training, highlighting the variety of training tools surrounding Hewlett: restoration tools (medicine ball and Indian clubs), martial tools (gloves boxing) and educational tools that make it easier to play sports and play. Hewlett made physical fitness relative and constitutive of an education at Harvard, and faculty and students took his lessons. After ten years in that position, a Boston newspaper declared that “athletics was almost on par with math.”

Theorists today generally ignore Hewlett’s contributions, and many date the development of this holistic approach to the 1950s and white men such as Jack LaLanne. Yet, 100 years earlier, Harvard had recognized and rewarded Hewlett for his mastery of the field.

Hewlett was a Renaissance man – not just a fitness expert, but an entrepreneur and activist. Hewlett (often referred to as Professor Hewlett) and his wife Virginia, an accomplished gymnast, have opened a private gymnasium on Brattle Street in the heart of Harvard Square. Mrs. Hewlett managed and supervised the Brattle Street Women’s Section, while her husband supervised the Palmer Street Men’s Gymnasium.

Hewlett was a co-owner of the Old Cambridge Clothing and Variety Store, which sold second-hand clothing and sporting goods, and was a director of the Cambridge Land and Building Co., which provided mortgage loans and other housing services to Blacks from Cambridge who were not able to get such help from the white banks.

An 1861 flyer promotes the Hewlett Double Gymnasium. (Image: Cambridge History)

Hewlett’s interest in the black citizens of Cambridge was still present. He often worked with other blacks in Cantabria to end racial discrimination and celebrate victories. When he and one of his daughters were forced to sit on the balcony of a Boston theater, he called on the state to better enforce its laws and revoke the licenses of establishments that illegally discriminated against blacks. . In 1868, Hewlett and 19 others accused the owners of the Cambridge Ice Rink of unlawful discrimination against people of color and demanded that city council revoke the rink’s license. One of the owners had refused to admit young Emanuel Hewlett and George Lewis Jr., telling them that “people of color weren’t allowed”. Robert Morris, the famous black lawyer from Boston, established that the rink was a public space and that “the public was invited by advertisements in various newspapers, by signs hung in the cars and by general distribution of flyers”. The defendants won the case and the owners of the rink were fined, according to the Cambridge Chronicle for February 15, 1868.

The Hewlett’s legacy was carried on by their children, three of whom rose to prominence in their own right. Their daughter Virginia was a suffragist and wife of Frederick Douglass Jr., son of the great Douglass; they lived in Cambridge before moving to Washington, DC Emanuel (the same who had been kicked out of the rink) graduated from Cambridge Public Schools, became the first black graduate of Boston University School of Law and one of first black lawyers allowed to appear before the United States Supreme Court. In 1887, in Washington, DC, Emanuel Hewlett and a friend who was also black met at Harvey’s, a popular oyster house. After 10 minutes without service, followed by another 10 minutes without oysters, Hewlett approached the manager, who curtly asked him what he wanted. Hewlett replied that he wanted oysters. The manager replied, “You can’t get them here. Get out of here, ”wrote John Kelly in February 2018 in the Washington Post. Hewlett filed a lawsuit against the restaurant, claiming it violated equal service laws; the judge fined Harvey $ 100.

Calling himself Paul Molyneaux, Aaron Hewlett has toured with theater companies in Europe and the United States, with Othello as a leading role. The Cambridge Chronicle reported on June 23, 1877, a few decades later, that his “text, gestures and movements were excellent,” as was his depiction of agony.

The Hewletters lived on Dunster Street until Aaron’s death in 1871; Virginia then moved to Washington, DC, where she died in 1878. Both are buried in Cambridge Cemetery.

The life of Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett may seem at first glance that of an exceptional black man. If he is known today, it is because, more than 200 years after the founding of Harvard, he was its first black instructor. But this exceptional perception is due only to the virulent racism of his time and to his infection of ours. We can only guess at the number of Hewlett’s buried in South and North slavery and removed by racism before and after emancipation. This man and his family were born out of the genius and resilience of blacks, a people he has never forgotten.

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About the Cambridge Black History Project

The Cambridge Black History Project is a voluntary organization committed to researching, accurately documenting, preserving and illuminating the journeys, achievements and challenges of Black people in Cantabria, and to share their stories through educational outreach. to the community of Cambridge and beyond.

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About Cambridge History

History Cambridge began in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name, a new look and a whole new mission.

We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do this by recognizing that everyone in our city knows something about the history of Cambridge and that their knowledge is important. We help people share the story with each other – and weave their knowledge – by giving them the voice, the microphone, the platform. We illuminate where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that the story belongs to everyone.

Our theme for 2021 is “How Cambridge Fixes Itself?” »Make history with us at cambridgehistory.org.


James Spencer, Ph.D., is chairman of the Cambridge Black History Project.

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