Saturday, May 18, 2024

History Cambridge partners with organizations from around the city to enhance and amplify the historical record. This week our friends at the Cambridge Black History Project are our Did You Know? guests.


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

This remarkable portrait of Aaron Molyneaux (also spelled Molineaux) Hewlett might puzzle students of U.S. history, for this sophisticated Black man lived in the United States at a time most people who looked like him were enslaved and considered subhuman. Even those who were free were usually limited to a small set of occupations. Hewlett, however, managed to find a way to prosper here in Cambridge.

Aaron Hewlett was a pioneer in the field of physical culture and promoted the use of creative movement and specialized equipment to achieve well-being; he believed that physical fitness was the foundation of mental and moral fitness. He came to Cambridge with his family in 1859 to become the first superintendent of Harvard’s new gymnasium; he was also the school’s first Black instructor. He taught gymnastics, baseball and boxing, coached sports teams and oversaw the gym’s equipment. The modern-day sports performance coach Ron Jones speaks to Hewlett’s classical knowledge of physical training, pointing to the variety of workout tools surrounding Hewlett: restorative tools (medicine ball and Indian clubs), martial tools (boxing gloves) and pedagogical tools that facilitate the playing of sports and games. Hewlett made physical fitness relative and constitutive to a Harvard education, and professors and students alike took his classes. After he had served in the position for 10 years, a Boston newspaper commented that “Athletics had come almost to rank with Mathematics.”

Today’s theorists are usually ignorant of 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 only a fitness expert, but an entrepreneur and activist. Hewlett (often referred to as professor Hewlett) and his wife, Virginie, an accomplished gymnast, opened a private gymnasium on Brattle Street in the heart of Harvard Square. Madam Hewlett managed and supervised the women’s section on Brattle Street, while her husband oversaw the men’s gym on Palmer Street.

Hewlett co-owned the Old Cambridge Clothing and Variety Store, which sold secondhand clothes and sporting goods and was a trustee of the Cambridge Land and Building Co., which offered home loans and other housing services to Blacks in Cambridge who were unable to get such assistance from white-run banks.

An 1861 flyer promotes the Hewletts’ dual gymnasium. (Image: History Cambridge)

Hewlett’s interest in Cambridge’s Black citizens was ever present. He often worked with other Black Cantabrigians to end race-based discrimination and celebrate victories. When he and one of his daughters were made to sit in the balcony of a Boston theater, he petitioned the state to better enforce its laws and revoke the licenses of establishments that discriminated against Blacks illegally. In 1868, Hewlett and 19 others charged the owners of the Cambridge Skating Rink with unlawful discrimination against persons of color and demanded that the City Council revoke the rink’s license. One of proprietors had refused to admit young Emanuel Hewlett and George Lewis Jr., telling them “colored people were not admitted.” Robert Morris, the renowned Black lawyer from Boston, established that the rink was a public space, and “the public had been invited by advertisements in various newspapers, by placards hung up in the cars and by a general distribution of handbills.” The defendants won the case and the proprietors of the rink were fined, according to the Cambridge Chronicle of Feb. 15, 1868.

The Hewletts’ legacy was carried on by their children, three of whom became prominent in their own right. Their daughter Virginia was a suffragist and the wife of Frederick Douglass Jr., son of the great Douglass; they lived in Cambridge before moving to Washington, D.C. Emanuel (the same who had been barred from the rink) graduated from Cambridge public schools, became the first Black graduate of Boston University School of Law and one of the first Black lawyers licensed to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1887, in Washington, D.C., Emanuel Hewlett and a friend who was also Black met at Harvey’s, a popular oyster house. After 10 minutes of no service, followed by 10 more minutes of no oysters, Hewlett approached the manager, who asked curtly what he wanted. Hewlett replied that he wanted oysters. The manager answered “You can’t get them here. Get out of here,” John Kelly wrote in February 2018 in the Washington Post. Hewlett filed a complaint against the restaurant, asserting that it violated the Equal Services Acts; the judge fined Harvey’s $100.

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

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

The life of Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett may seem at first glance to be that of an exceptional Black man. If he is known at all today, it is because, more than 200 years after Harvard’s founding, he was its first Black instructor. But this perception of exceptionality is due only to the virulent racism of his time and its infection of our own. We can only guess at the number of Hewletts buried by Southern and Northern enslavement and suppressed by pre- and post-emancipation racism. This man and his family emerged from the genius and resilience of Black people, a people he never forgot.


About The Cambridge Black History Project

The Cambridge Black History Project is a volunteer organization that is committed to researching, accurately documenting, preserving and illuminating the journeys, accomplishments and challenges of Black Cantabrigians, and to raising awareness of their stories through educational outreach to the Cambridge community and beyond.


About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started 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 that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.

Our theme for 2021 is “How Does Cambridge Mend?” Make history with us at

James Spencer, Ph.D., is president of The Cambridge Black History Project.