In August of 1925, a parade of 30,000 unmasked Ku Klux Klan members proudly marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. as a public statement of its power and so-called patriotism. The Washington Post called it “one of the greatest demonstrations this city has ever known.” Countless white residents cheered along the sidelines of the massive parade. The scene symbolized the deepening hostility many white Americans held toward African American World War I veterans returning to the US after fighting abroad. The national aggression against them manifested in a significant uptick in lynching and conveyed the volatile nature of American racism.
That same year, Howard University, an historically Black college, also in the heart of the nation’s capital, prepared for the most consequential pivot in its history: from 60 years of white leadership to its first African American president, Mordecai Johnson. With segregation offering Black colleges a monopoly on the Black Intelligentsia, Johnson eventually led the institution into prominence as the “Capstone of Negro Education,” strengthening its academic offerings and recruiting and nurturing a stellar faculty. Howard’s students and alumni had pressed to summon Johnson to its helm; the university’s transition symbolized the temperament of the era’s countless African Americans who sought, regardless of white belligerence, to articulate their own worldviews and demanded autonomy in steering their own destinies. To this end, the era was stamped “The New Negro Renaissance.”
The invigorating spirit of self-determination was especially palpable in the imprint of African American women leaders in the spheres of business, culture, and education. In fact, the New Negro Renaissance owed much of its fervor to well-connected Black women in D.C., such as writer and literary critic Jessie Fauset; poet and popular salon host Georgia Douglas Johnson; educator and activist Nannie Helen Burroughs; and Howard’s dean of women, professional tennis legend Lucy Diggs Slowe. In 1925, Maryrose Reeves Allen arrived as the university’s founding director of the Department of Physical Education for Women. Immediately, Allen instituted the department’s motto, “The Negro Woman as our Standard,” a clear indication that her unit would be much more than an exercise workshop.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Allen brought training from the Sargent School of Physical Education at Boston University, where she ultimately earned her master’s degree. Her professional career included teaching physical education and training courses in New Jersey public schools and at Hampton University in Virginia. Beyond these experiences, she maintained a firm understanding of national history, the existing racial climate, and how it threatened African American women’s wellness. Taking a holistic approach to caring for the self, she envisioned a program curated specifically for young African American women that emphasized physical, mental, and spiritual health as a medium to true beauty and self-regard, which was achievable despite white supremacy’s relentlessness. In the official “Philosophy of the Department of Physical Education for Women,” she named her holistic concept “total fitness” and declared it necessary for living a meaningful life. She wove together interdisciplinary approaches within the department’s coursework focused on mental health, spiritual wellness, and what she termed “body aesthetics.”
In caring for the minds of young Black women, Allen often addressed the harmful and lasting outcomes of embracing white supremacist media, which standardized beauty according to European norms. Allen’s teachings challenged the idea of white women as the lone examples of beauty and femininity. Meanwhile, blockbuster films in the first half of the 20th century, including Birth of a Nation, Tarzan, and Gone with the Wind, used white actresses to epitomize loveliness by making them the victims of dark and brutish characters. Dominant media was racially charged, and Allen knew that the world her students would enter after leaving Howard would be biased accordingly. Her mission to protect and foster young Black women’s intellectual development involved examining beauty as both a social construct and as an opportunity for reclamation. Allen stated: “The only standard we have which is really not a scientific one, it is one that has grown like everything else out of our present-day civilization: a surface, empty kind of beauty, which tends to increase surface living and thinking.” Instead of submitting to national ideas about attractiveness, she helped her students recognize racism as the essential feature of American beauty standards and encouraged them to commit to physical training, personal development, and spiritual growth to develop “a deeper meaning of beauty” for themselves.
While Allen defined beauty apart from the superficial, she also appreciated fitness and adornment as opportunities to enhance the body as a work of art. Her leadership in women’s sports activities fed Howard’s renowned reputation beyond the city. She established and managed the Negro Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Association to “develop in women the qualities of poise, beauty and femininity, by affording each individual who participates an opportunity to play in an atmosphere of dignity, courtesy, and refinement.” The association hosted athletic tournaments for students from a variety of colleges. Allen required students under her purview take a course in swimming and, during their last semester, an elective of their choice from options that included tennis, fencing, archery, golf, riflery, badminton, hockey, basketball, modern dance, folk and social dance, tap dance, and advanced swimming. The fitness training she delivered merged her appreciation for body sculpturing and her adoption of more traditional notions of acceptable feminine pursuits that, in her view, would be most advantageous to African American women navigating a world already filled with discrimination. Allen reasoned that involvement in sports should be useful to life, and, therefore, the elective a student selected should be based on her personal needs. For example, she advised, “An introvert should select an activity that brings her in contact with others, while the extrovert may benefit from learning a skill that can be used when alone in an attempt to find inner contentment.” Moreover, her writings revealed a therapeutic approach to personal body treatments. “During the times of the Egyptians…” she mused, “just think back to the luxurious baths that were designed, containing the numerous fragrances and oils that were taken to preserve and care for the body.” While famed businesswoman Elizabeth Arden opened the first destination beauty spa in the United States, in 1934 Allen taught facial and water therapy techniques for her students to practice at home; not only would Jim Crow laws have prevented them from patronizing establishments like Arden’s, but home-based self-care proved more affordable and sustainable. Allen’s program continually endeavored to tailor its offerings to meet the individual needs, dispositions and interests of its students, which was especially significant since so few spaces offered this kind of consideration to Black women.
Allen was also an early pioneer of mindfulness. She urged students to keep journals of their habits and develop an ongoing consciousness about their thoughts, sensations, and routines. She wanted them to remain active and avoid creating lives that felt productive but actually were not. She advised:
Most American women, don’t realize that today’s pattern of life represents a change from physically active to physically passive. Before anyone protests that they couldn’t possibly be more active than in their present busy life, perhaps they should take a look at what they are actually doing each day in terms of physical activity. Perhaps you are rushing frantically from one activity to another, from one place to another, and accomplishing a great deal in your profession, your community, your home, your school. But what is required of your body during all this furious activity? If you keep a record for a week of how many hours you spend sitting, standing, walking, sleeping, eating, you may be surprised. Most of your hectic life you will find demands little physically: cars, trains, escalators, and elevators take the physical effort out of getting from one place to another, and mechanical gadgets minimize the physical work in work, whether at home, on the job, or at school.
Allen crowned her teachings on body care and mindfulness with attention to wellness of the soul. She condemned inequality and racism and warned that true beauty could only be achieved by way of good character. She admired the Plato quote, “When a beautiful soul harmonizes with a beautiful form, and the two are cast in one mold, that will be the fairest of sights to him who has an eye to see it.” She regularly reminded her students of their place on this spectrum, stating, “At no time have I doubted the beauty of Howard women.” With this mantra and corresponding coursework, Maryrose Reeves Allen’s four-year, academically grounded program rendered tangible strategies for securing job placement, challenging white supremacy, and safeguarding Black women’s self-worth during one of the most dismal periods in American racial history. For 42 years until her retirement in 1967, she organized and innovated programs at Howard, such as the Beauty Bazaar, Christmas Program, Folk Fiesta, May Festival, Water Show and Sports Day. The Beauty Bazaar showcased African American tastemakers in hair and fashion throughout the region. The May Festival, which culminated with a queen’s coronation, drew D.C.’s Black elite to its audience and once featured a crown designed by international award-winning artist Lois Mailou Jones.
An event which celebrated young Black college women, it garnered coverage from the black press annually. Allen mused, “The May Festival was my life at the University.” She summarized her fundamental mission as follows:
Using the Negro woman as our standard, we emphasize, not only the importance of attaining physical beauty, but also beauty of the mind, i.e. proper attitude towards life and its problems and an appreciation for the cultural and spiritual aspects of living. A woman that is beautiful physically, mentally and spiritually is an asset to her race and her country and she is able to make a more a more satisfactory adjustment to her immediate environment.
Allen’s wellness work continues to address a broad spectrum of Black women’s bouts with beauty-centric racism and sexism, particularly in the public sphere. For example, throughout their careers, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams, and countless others have been compared to animals and men, and deemed unattractive by common spectators and paid commentators alike. The same bigoted ridicule is also hurled at African American women not in the public eye and without wealth and widespread fan support. Allen foresaw this need for comprehensive self-care as a resource for everyday Black women to protect and honor themselves without the need for approval from the broader society; hence, “The Negro Woman as our Standard.”
Maryrose Reeves Allen’s personal papers, which served as the source of the quotations in this piece, are housed at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. Thanks to archivist Sonja N. Woods for her help with this piece.