African American Reform in the Progressive Era

African American Reform in the Progressive Era


The Progressive Era, spanning approximately from 1890 to 1920, marked a significant period of social, political, and economic transformation in the United States. During this era, a diverse array of reform movements sought to address the pressing issues of the time, from urbanization and industrialization to political corruption and social inequality. Amidst this backdrop of change and reform, African Americans, who had long been marginalized and oppressed, embarked on a journey to improve the lives of their people.

This essay delves into the endeavors of African American reformers during the Progressive Era. It explores the strategies, movements, and leaders that emerged within the African American community to combat the pervasive racism, discrimination, and segregation that defined their existence. Through their persistent efforts, African American reformers sought to pave the way for a brighter future and lay the foundations for the Civil Rights Movement that would follow in the decades to come.

The Context of African Americans in the Progressive Era

To understand the motivations and actions of African American reformers during the Progressive Era, it is crucial to grasp the dire context in which they lived. For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, African Americans faced systemic oppression and inequality on multiple fronts.

Politically, African Americans were disenfranchised through a variety of means, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and the infamous “grandfather clauses.” These tactics effectively prevented many African Americans from exercising their right to vote, rendering them voiceless in a democratic society.

Socially, the era was characterized by the pervasiveness of segregation and racial violence. African Americans were subjected to Jim Crow laws, which mandated the separation of races in public facilities, transportation, and schools. Lynchings and race-based violence were tragically commonplace, creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

Economically, African Americans were relegated to the lowest rungs of society. They faced limited access to educational opportunities and employment prospects, often confined to low-paying and menial jobs. The racial wealth gap widened as African Americans were denied the chance to accumulate assets and generational wealth.

Booker T. Washington and the Philosophy of Self-Help

One prominent figure who emerged during the Progressive Era as a leader in the African American community was Booker T. Washington. Washington’s approach to improving the lives of African Americans was rooted in the philosophy of self-help and economic empowerment. His ideas and strategies played a pivotal role in shaping the course of African American reform during this era.

Booker T. Washington believed that the path to racial progress lay in economic self-sufficiency and vocational education. He argued that African Americans should focus on acquiring practical skills and establishing a strong work ethic to uplift themselves. In 1881, Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, an institution dedicated to providing vocational training to African Americans. This institution became a beacon of hope and empowerment for many in the African American community.

At Tuskegee, Washington promoted the concept of “industrial education,” which emphasized training in trades and agricultural skills. He believed that by equipping African Americans with these skills, they could become self-reliant and less dependent on white employers. Washington’s philosophy resonated with a significant portion of the African American population who saw vocational education as a practical means to escape poverty and racial oppression.

Furthermore, Washington advocated accommodation and cooperation with white society, especially with Southern white leaders. He believed that by demonstrating the economic value of African American labor and their willingness to work alongside white communities, racial tensions could be reduced. This philosophy led him to deliver his famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech in 1895, where he urged African Americans to accept segregation and focus on economic advancement rather than immediate political and civil rights.

Booker T. Washington’s leadership and the Tuskegee Institute symbolized the pursuit of self-help and economic self-sufficiency as a means of progress for African Americans during the Progressive Era. While his ideas were not without controversy and criticism, they left a lasting legacy in the African American community and laid the groundwork for future leaders and movements.

W.E.B. Du Bois and the Demand for Civil Rights

In stark contrast to Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of gradualism and self-help, another influential voice emerged within the African American community during the Progressive Era—W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois championed a more confrontational and rights-oriented approach to addressing the deeply entrenched racism and discrimination faced by African Americans.

Du Bois, a highly educated scholar with a doctorate from Harvard University, believed that civil rights and political equality should be the immediate goals for African Americans. He criticized Washington’s accommodating stance and argued that African Americans should demand their full rights as American citizens without compromise. Du Bois saw education, especially higher education, as a means to empower African Americans intellectually and politically.

In 1905, Du Bois and other like-minded activists co-founded the Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization that called for an end to racial segregation, equal voting rights, and equal access to education. The Niagara Movement’s demands for full civil and political rights laid the foundation for the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, with Du Bois serving as a founding member and editor of its influential magazine, “The Crisis.”

The NAACP became a powerful force in advocating for African American civil rights during the Progressive Era. Through legal action, lobbying, and public awareness campaigns, the NAACP challenged racial segregation in schools, housing, and public facilities. It also fought against lynching and racial violence, working to secure anti-lynching legislation at the federal level.

W.E.B. Du Bois’s uncompromising stance on civil rights and his dedication to advancing the cause of African Americans through education and political activism made him a leading figure in the struggle for racial equality. His advocacy helped shift the discourse within the African American community from accommodation to a more assertive demand for civil rights and social justice.

The differing philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois highlighted the complexity of African American reform efforts during the Progressive Era. While Washington emphasized economic self-sufficiency and gradual progress, Du Bois argued for immediate civil rights and equality. These two influential voices, each with its own merits and drawbacks, reflected the diversity of approaches taken by African American reformers in their pursuit of a better life for their people.

Grassroots Activism and Community Building

While leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois played pivotal roles in shaping the African American reform movement during the Progressive Era, the strength of the movement also lay in the efforts of grassroots activists and community organizations. These local initiatives were instrumental in empowering African American communities and effecting change from the ground up.

Churches played a central role in African American communities during this period. Many churches were not only places of worship but also centers for community organizing and social support. Pastors and religious leaders often took on prominent roles in advocating for civil rights and social justice. For instance, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr. of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem used his pulpit to address issues of racial inequality and discrimination.

Fraternal organizations, such as the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the National Urban League, provided essential support and resources to African American communities. The NACW, founded in 1896, focused on issues such as women’s suffrage, education, and healthcare for African American families. The National Urban League, established in 1910, worked to improve economic opportunities and housing conditions for African Americans in urban areas.

Women’s clubs were another crucial part of the grassroots activism landscape. African American women, in particular, played vital roles in these clubs. Leaders like Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells were at the forefront of campaigns against lynching and racial violence. These clubs not only raised awareness but also organized protests, petition drives, and educational initiatives.

The concept of “uplift” was central to grassroots activism during the Progressive Era. African American reformers believed in the importance of self-improvement and community betterment. They organized programs to provide education, vocational training, and support to their fellow community members, helping individuals and families break free from the cycle of poverty and oppression.

Grassroots activism and community building efforts were characterized by resilience and resourcefulness. Despite facing significant obstacles and discrimination, African American communities came together to support one another and advocate for their rights. These local initiatives laid the groundwork for broader social and political change and demonstrated the power of collective action in the face of adversity.

Political Mobilization and Legislative Change

As the Progressive Era unfolded, African Americans increasingly recognized the importance of political engagement as a means to improve their lives. One significant aspect of this era was the Great Migration, a massive movement of African Americans from the rural South to urban centers in the North, Midwest, and West. This migration resulted in a significant shift in the African American population and played a crucial role in political mobilization.

In northern cities like Chicago, New York, and Detroit, African Americans found themselves in urban environments with new opportunities for political participation. They began to organize and build political influence in these urban centers. Prominent African American newspapers, such as the Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News, provided platforms for political discourse and advocacy.

During the Progressive Era, African Americans began to wield their political influence by forming voting blocs and participating in local and national elections. While many still faced significant obstacles such as voter suppression and intimidation, their determination to exercise their political rights grew stronger. Prominent figures like Oscar De Priest, the first African American elected to Congress from a northern state, represented the growing political clout of African American communities.

Legislative changes also began to address some of the systemic inequalities faced by African Americans. The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, granted women the right to vote, and African American women, though still facing racial discrimination, joined the suffrage movement and worked to secure their voting rights. Additionally, the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870 but often undermined by discriminatory practices, gained renewed attention as African American activists pushed for its enforcement.

African American leaders, such as Ida B. Wells and Monroe Trotter, tirelessly advocated against racial violence and the horrors of lynching. Their activism drew national attention and increased public awareness of the urgent need for anti-lynching legislation. Though federal anti-lynching bills faced significant resistance and were not successfully passed during the Progressive Era, this advocacy laid the groundwork for future civil rights efforts.

The political mobilization and legislative changes of the Progressive Era marked a significant step forward for African Americans in their pursuit of civil rights and equal representation. While challenges persisted, the period set the stage for future political activism and paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.

Economic Empowerment and Entrepreneurship

Economic empowerment was a central theme in the efforts of African American reformers during the Progressive Era. Many African Americans recognized that achieving financial independence was crucial to improving the lives of their communities and breaking free from the cycle of poverty and discrimination.

The rise of Black businesses and entrepreneurship became a significant force for change. African American entrepreneurs like Madam C.J. Walker, who founded a successful line of beauty and haircare products, and Robert Church Sr., who owned the first Black-owned park and amusement center in Memphis, became inspirational figures. These individuals not only achieved personal success but also reinvested in their communities, creating jobs and opportunities for others.

The idea of “group economics” gained prominence during this era. It emphasized the importance of supporting Black-owned businesses and keeping wealth circulating within the African American community. Consumers were encouraged to buy from Black-owned stores and banks, thereby contributing to the economic strength of their own neighborhoods.

African American cooperative movements, such as the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union, aimed to address economic challenges faced by rural African Americans. By pooling resources and collective action, these cooperatives helped farmers access better prices for their crops and break free from the cycle of debt imposed by white landowners.

Educational institutions also played a role in economic empowerment. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) provided African Americans with opportunities for higher education and professional development. Graduates of these institutions went on to become leaders in various fields, contributing to economic progress and social change.

Economic empowerment and entrepreneurship were not only about personal success but also about challenging the prevailing racial hierarchy. African Americans used their economic achievements to demand respect and recognition as equal citizens. They demonstrated that they could compete in the marketplace and make valuable contributions to American society.

The efforts toward economic empowerment during the Progressive Era laid the foundation for the growth of a strong Black middle class in the decades that followed. These achievements were a testament to the resilience and determination of African American reformers who sought to improve the economic prospects of their communities and challenge the racial inequalities of their time.

Challenges and Opposition

Despite the determined efforts of African American reformers during the Progressive Era, their work was met with significant challenges and opposition. The fight for equality and justice faced resistance from various quarters, including white supremacists, politicians, and even some within the African American community.

White supremacists, often organized into groups like the Ku Klux Klan, continued to perpetrate acts of violence and terror against African Americans. Lynchings, burnings, and acts of racial violence were used as tools of intimidation to maintain white supremacy. These acts not only took countless lives but also struck fear into African American communities, making it difficult for them to assert their rights.

Politically, many white politicians in the South worked tirelessly to suppress African American voting rights. Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, and poll taxes were used to disenfranchise African Americans and deny them their voice in the democratic process. The system of racial segregation was upheld by both legislation and extralegal means.

Within the African American community itself, there were divisions and debates about the most effective strategies for reform. Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of gradualism faced criticism from those who believed that it amounted to capitulation to white oppression. W.E.B. Du Bois’ advocacy for civil rights and political equality was met with skepticism from some who feared backlash from white supremacists.

Tragically, the Progressive Era also saw horrific events like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, where a prosperous African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was destroyed by white mobs. The destruction of Black Wall Street, as it was known, underscored the fragility of African American economic progress in the face of racial hatred and violence.

Despite these challenges and opposition, African American reformers and their allies persevered. They continued to organize, protest, and advocate for their rights. Events like the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural and artistic movement of the 1920s, showcased the resilience and creativity of the African American community, highlighting the richness of their culture in the face of adversity.

The challenges and opposition faced during the Progressive Era underscored the deeply entrenched racism and discrimination in American society. They served as a stark reminder that the fight for civil rights and equality would be a long and arduous one. Nevertheless, African American reformers and their allies laid the groundwork for future generations to continue the struggle for justice and equality.

Legacy and Continuing Struggles

The efforts of African American reformers during the Progressive Era left an enduring legacy that reverberates through American history. Their work, despite the challenges and opposition they faced, paved the way for significant social and political change in the years that followed.

The Progressive Era set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. The activism, strategies, and organizations that emerged during this earlier period provided a foundation for the leaders and movements that would rise to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. Figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X built upon the work of their predecessors and continued the fight for racial equality.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were direct outcomes of the struggles of African American reformers during the Progressive Era. These landmark pieces of legislation, which aimed to dismantle institutionalized racism and discrimination, were a testament to the perseverance and determination of generations of activists.

The legacy of African American reformers also extends to contemporary movements for social justice. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, draws inspiration from the historical struggles against racial injustice and continues to advocate for systemic change and an end to police violence against African Americans.

However, the struggles and challenges faced by African Americans are far from over. Racial disparities in education, employment, criminal justice, and wealth persist, underscoring the need for ongoing activism and advocacy. The fight for racial equality remains a central issue in American society, and the lessons learned from the Progressive Era continue to inform and inspire those working towards a more just and equitable future.

In conclusion, the Progressive Era was a pivotal period in the history of African American reform. African American leaders, thinkers, and activists, whether advocating for self-help, civil rights, economic empowerment, or political change, laid the groundwork for the transformative movements that followed. Their legacy endures as a testament to the enduring spirit of resilience and determination in the face of adversity.


The Progressive Era, a time of sweeping social, political, and economic change in the United States, witnessed the emergence of African American reformers who were determined to improve the lives of their people. These reformers, representing diverse philosophies and strategies, confronted the pervasive racism, discrimination, and segregation that defined the era. Their efforts, though met with challenges and opposition, have left a lasting legacy that continues to shape the course of American history.

African American reformers during this period embodied a spectrum of approaches. Booker T. Washington championed vocational education and economic self-sufficiency, emphasizing self-help and gradual progress. W.E.B. Du Bois, on the other hand, demanded immediate civil rights and political equality, advocating for higher education and political engagement. These differing philosophies reflected the complexity of African American reform efforts and the diversity of approaches taken to uplift their communities.

Grassroots activism and community building were central to the progress made during the Progressive Era. Churches, fraternal organizations, and women’s clubs served as hubs for organizing and support, empowering local communities to take control of their destinies. These initiatives demonstrated the power of collective action and resilience in the face of adversity.

Political mobilization and legislative change became increasingly important as African Americans recognized the need to engage in the political process. The Great Migration, which saw a massive shift in African American population to urban centers, provided opportunities for political participation. Despite voter suppression efforts, African Americans organized, voted, and pushed for legislative changes that would secure their rights.

Economic empowerment and entrepreneurship played a critical role in improving the lives of African Americans. Black-owned businesses and cooperative movements created economic opportunities and challenged the racial wealth gap. These efforts not only achieved personal success but also contributed to the economic strength of African American communities.

However, challenges and opposition were formidable. White supremacists used violence and intimidation to maintain racial hierarchy, while politicians sought to suppress African American voting rights. Divisions within the African American community itself added complexity to the reform movement. Tragic events like the Tulsa Race Massacre served as stark reminders of the violence and discrimination that persisted.

The legacy of African American reformers during the Progressive Era endures in the Civil Rights Movement and contemporary social justice movements. Their determination and resilience laid the foundation for legislative changes and social progress. The struggle for racial equality is an ongoing one, and the lessons learned from this era continue to inform and inspire those working towards a more just and equitable future.

In sum, the Progressive Era was a pivotal period in African American history. The reformers of this era, with their diverse approaches and unwavering commitment, played an essential role in advancing the cause of racial equality. Their legacy reminds us that progress is born from struggle and that the pursuit of justice is a journey that continues to shape the nation’s destiny.

Class Outline: How did African American reformers at the turn of the century seek to improve the lives of their people?

While the Progressive movement brought significant change and progress to white Americans it was primarily a movement based primarily in white, northern, industrial cities. The needs of African Americans located primarily in the south also needed to be addressed.

I. The Progressive Movement and African Americans

A. African American Problems

1. Little real wealth

-many southern agricultural tenant farmers and hired hands.

-others remained south near families but had little opportunity.

2. Jim Crow Laws – de Jure segregation

-Plessey v Ferguson still in effect.

3. Black schools were inferior.

4. Political districts were gerrymandered to eliminate black

B. Solutions

1. Migration north

-settled in the cities, looking for work but many of
the same problems remained in terms of education and opportunity.

2. Church involvement.

3. Beginnings of efforts gained at achieving equality.

C. African American Reformers

1. Booker
T. Washington
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2. W.E.B. Du Bois
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3. Marcus Garvey
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Freedom is the participation in power.

-Marcus Tulius Cicero