Blacks in the Progressive Era – The Journey from Slavery to Jim Crow

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The Progressive Era was a time of intense reform, but for most blacks it was a transition; not from slavery to freedom, but from slavery to Jim Crow.

By the turn of the twentieth century, blacks mainly lived in the rural South. While there was some movement north, most blacks were poor sharecroppers who were socially and economically burdened with a Jim Crow existence. Nearly all public facilities were segregated and the idea of “separate but equal” was seldom present. Socially the South returned to its ante bellum roots. Politically, white supremacists used poll taxes and violence to successfully disenfranchise blacks throughout the South.

Progressive Era Violence

While the Progressive Era is usually associated with muckrakers like Upton Sinclair, President Theodore Roosevelt, and settlement houses like Jane Addams Hull House, the period is also notable for the violence committed against blacks throughout the country. Between 1900 and 1914, it is estimated that more the one thousand blacks were murdered (some mutilated and most lynched) by mobs. This kind of a perverse form of social justice resulted in innocent men and women being put to death on the hearsay of individuals and often with nonexistent evidence.

Race riots occurred in cities like Atlanta, Springfield, and Chicago where white mobs invaded the black parts of town and burned and looted homes without fear of police repercussions. The black community found itself powerless to effect any social changes. However, it was a group of “new” abolitionists whose outrage led to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP). W.E.B. DuBois was the lone black among the new organization’s top eight officials and began a campaign to bring awareness to the inequities in the plight of the nation’s blacks through its Crises newspaper.

Black Economics

Most blacks lived in the rural areas of the South and worked places like the cotton fields, railroad camps, or mines, under conditions reminiscent to slavery. Blacks often signed labor contracts, and because many were illiterate, they did not understand that full terms of the agreement. Such contracts often tied them to these jobs and oftentimes armed guards patrolled the camps and farms whipping those who did not produce enough or tried to escape.

Even though the unions throughout the country were growing in influence, few admitted blacks to their ranks. As a result, blacks often earned less than their white counterparts for the same work.

Integration or Separation

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Progressive era was the conflict between the accomodationist straegies of Booker T. Washington and the integrationism of W.E.B. DuBois. With his “Atlanta Compromise” address Washington deftly stated economic realities facing both southern blacks and whites and the need to work together. However, he appeared to accept momentary segregation for the sake of economic gain.

Even though there is evidence that DuBois initially approved of Washington’s position, he soon became his most vocal critic. DuBois soon led a movement that demanded economic opportunity, immediate integration, voting rights, and equality before the law.

While the Progressive Era is usually referred to as a time of reform in this country, the needs of blacks typically escaped the attention of those in the White House. Undaunted, the adverse political, social, and economic conditions of blacks were brought to light by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois in their own unique ways; Washington through private backdoor meetings, and DuBois through direct attacks through the Crises. Nonetheless, both men recognized that the ante bellum era had return and white supremacists were unwilling to allow blacks access to the right guaranteed all Americans through the Constitution.

Reference:

  1. Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred Moss (2000). From Slavery to Freedom. Eigth Edition. New York: McGraw Hill.