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African Americans in the Progressive Era: Issues & Leaders

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  • 0:07 Race Issues in an Era…
  • 3:17 Limited Progressive Reforms
  • 4:35 Ida B. Wells
  • 5:25 Booker T. Washington &…
  • 8:07 NAACP Challenges Jim Crow
  • 8:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laurel Click

Laurel has taught social studies courses at the high school level and has a master's degree in history.

During the Progressive Era, from approximately 1900 to 1918, progress for many African Americans was hard to come by. Explore some of the inequalities African Americans faced and learn about notable African-American leaders of the era including Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Race Issues in an Era of Reform

The Progressive Era, from approximately 1900 to 1918, was marked by a movement to correct social, economic and political problems in America. However, one area in need of reform that was mostly overlooked by white Progressives was the plight of African Americans. For example, can you imagine not being allowed to attend school with other students, or buy a house in a certain neighborhood, or use the same water fountain as other people, simply because of the color of your skin?

During the Progressive Era, racism affected many aspects of American society. Particularly in the South, Jim Crow (racial segregation laws) were a way of life, thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 'separate but equal' ruling, which allowed segregation to flourish.

Can you imagine not being able to vote even though a constitutional amendment said you could? African Americans were disenfranchised (which means excluded) through voting restrictions. One of the Progressive political reforms of the era was direct primary elections. However, in the South, the primaries were limited to white-only participation, excluding African Americans and driving them out of politics.

Another way African Americans were excluded from voting was the grandfather clause. The grandfather clause said that if a man's grandfather was a voter before 1867, he did not have to pass voting requirements, such as property ownership or literacy tests that were currently in place. The grandfather clause essentially allowed poor, uneducated whites to vote, but denied African Americans the right to vote.

Racial tension was not limited to the South. In an attempt to seek economic opportunity and escape the poverty of sharecropping and tenant farming, some blacks began moving north. As a result, the North experienced growing racial tensions as African Americans competed for jobs, leading to increased social instability. African Americans were paid low wages and were often not allowed to join labor unions.

Can you imagine having to look away or step aside so that your gaze did not fall upon the person approaching you? Can you imagine being on constant alert against mob violence towards you or your family? In the South, intense racism and intimidation tactics towards African Americans sometimes resulted in violence and even lynchings, or hangings. Between 1900 and 1920, 75 lynchings occurred per year. To make matters worse, lynchings were rarely investigated by law enforcement.

Adding to the existing racial strains on the country, The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915. This movie glorified the earlier Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and perpetuated stereotypes of African Americans as lazy, incompetent and childlike. It was the first motion picture to be shown in the White House under President Woodrow Wilson's administration. KKK membership surged throughout the country following the release of The Birth of a Nation. Many Americans cited membership in the Klan as an effort to preserve their way of life.

Limited Progressive Reforms

The mainstream Progressive movement did little to improve the lives of African Americans. Most white Progressives supported or allowed segregation, viewing blacks as inferior or part of the problem within society. There were some exceptions. Lillian Wald, director of the Henry Street Settlement in New York City, fought for racial integration, as did muckraker Ray Stannard Baker, who examined racism in his book, Following the Color Line, written in 1908.

Mary White Ovington had worked as a settlement house worker among urban blacks. After race riots erupted in Springfield, IL, in 1908, Ovington, along with Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, organized white Progressives and key African-American leaders in forming the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

In response to the existing racial climate, particularly in the South, African-American churches provided a social outlet and safe haven for blacks. Because of segregation, there was an increase in black owned and operated businesses, such as barbers, funeral homes, insurance companies and banks. Women's clubs, college fraternities and sororities also provided a network of support within the black community.

Ida B. Wells

Let's now look at three African-American leaders of the Progressive Era you should remember. First up is Ida B. Wells. Ida B. Wells was a schoolteacher who filed suit against a railroad company for removing her from a train after she refused to give up her seat because she was black. When several of her friends were lynched by a white mob, she began a journalistic crusade against lynching. Wells became an editor of Free Speech and Headlight, a black newspaper in Memphis, TN.

She used fiery rhetoric to demand an end to lynching, full equality and the end of white supremacy. She played a key role in the development of black women's clubs and she helped establish the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. She became an early member of the NAACP and worked to promote women's suffrage, or right to vote.

Booker T. Washington

Next is Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington emerged as a leading spokesman for the plight of African Americans in the 1890s, up until his death in 1915. Booker T. Washington was born a slave in Virginia. He was educated at Hampton Institute and went on to lead the Tuskegee Institute, an all-black college in Alabama.

In 1895, he gave a speech at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, which later became known as the Atlanta Compromise. Essentially, Washington spoke of not antagonizing race relations between blacks and whites. You might think of it as a 'don't rock the boat' approach. He encouraged blacks not to make the situation more volatile, but rather to focus on their own immediate opportunities.

Booker T. Washington, author of Up from Slavery (published in 1901), was consulted by Northern business leaders on technical and vocational training for blacks. He also visited with Theodore Roosevelt at the White House to discuss race relations. Washington believed that once African Americans advanced themselves through work and rose to the middle-class professions, white Americans would naturally begin to accept the need for change and improvement in the civil and political rights for blacks. As the Progressive movement evolved, more African Americans began to grow impatient with what they saw as an 'accommodationist' stance promoted by Washington.

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