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Progressivism and Reform, African Americans in the Progressive Era

Southern legislatures, Atlanta Compromise, Souls of Black Folk, Tuskegee Institute, poll taxes

Despite their zeal for reform, few progressives made race relations a priority, and in the South, leading progressives often endorsed racist policies. In 1900 more than two-thirds of 10 million African Americans lived in the South; most were sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Rural or urban, Southern blacks faced poverty, discrimination, and limited employment opportunities. At the end of the 19th century, Southern legislatures passed Jim Crow laws that separated blacks and whites in public places. Because blacks were deprived of the right to vote by the grandfather clause, poll taxes, or other means, their political participation was limited. Lynching increased, and a steady stream of black migrants moved north. From 1890 to 1910, some 200,000 African Americans left the South, and even more moved out during World War I.

As African Americans tried to combat racism and avoid racial conflict, they clashed over strategies of accommodation and resistance. Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, urged blacks to be industrious and frugal, to learn manual skills, to become farmers and artisans, to work their way up economically, and to win the respect of whites. When blacks proved their economic value, Washington argued, racism would decline. An agile politician, with appeal to both whites and blacks, Washington urged African Americans to adjust to the status quo. In 1895, in a speech that critics labeled the Atlanta Compromise, Washington contended that blacks and whites could coexist in harmony with separate social lives but united in efforts toward economic progress.

Northern intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois challenged Washington’s policy. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois deplored Washington’s call for patience and for cultivation of manual skills. Instead he urged equal educational opportunities and the end of discrimination. In 1909 Du Bois joined a group of progressives, black and white, to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP strove to end the disfranchisement of black people, to abolish segregation, and to promote black civil and political rights.

Article key phrases:

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