Back To CourseHistory 104: US History II
14 chapters | 111 lessons | 10 flashcard sets
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Laurel has taught social studies courses at the high school level and has a master's degree in history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The third African-American leader I'd like you to remember is W.E.B. Du Bois. W.E.B. Du Bois was the son of free black parents from Massachusetts. He was educated at Fisk University in Nashville, TN, where he experienced the racial prejudice of the South first hand. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University and went on to study at the University of Berlin. He became a professor at Atlanta University. It was there that Du Bois began to openly challenge Booker T. Washington's accommodationist approach.
Du Bois, author of The Souls of Black Folk (published in 1903), demanded immediate social and political equality, ending disenfranchisement and legalized segregation. He demanded African Americans receive the same educational opportunities as whites and called for 'ceaseless agitation' against racism in any form. He also insisted that laws aimed at protecting African Americans be enforced.
William Monroe Trotter, editor of the Boston Guardian, along with Du Bois, formed the Niagara Movement in 1905, which brought leading black intellectuals together to promote and encourage black pride and demand full political and civil equality. By 1909, most of the black activists of the Niagara Movement joined the newly-formed NAACP.
The NAACP journal, The Crisis, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, challenged Jim Crow and called for integration of African Americans into all areas of society. The NAACP was instrumental in stopping President Woodrow Wilson from segregating the federal workforce and campaigned to allow African Americans to serve as military officers during World War I.
The NAACP also won early civil rights victories between 1915 and 1917 when the Supreme Court declared several state laws unconstitutional, including the grandfather clause, which excused white men from certain voting requirements that were imposed on blacks, and segregated housing laws that outlawed the sale of property to African Americans in certain residential areas.
Let's review. During the Progressive Era, from approximately 1900 to 1918, African Americans contended with continued disenfranchisement and social, political and economic inequality. Racism towards African Americans was common throughout the country and was perpetuated by the likes of Jim Crow laws and D.W. Griffith's movie, The Birth of a Nation.
While most white Progressives were quiet on race issues, there were some who took up the cause of African Americans. The limited gains that were made for African Americans were the result of notable African-American leaders, such as Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, and their white allies. The NAACP successfully used the court system to begin overturning unjust laws discriminating against African Americans and would continue to be a driving force in demanding civil rights for African Americans for years to come.
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Back To CourseHistory 104: US History II
14 chapters | 111 lessons | 10 flashcard sets