The Progressive Era and Race: Reaction and Reform, 1900-1917

The Progressive Era and Race: Reaction and Reform, 1900-1917

The Progressive Era and Race: Reaction and Reform, 1900-1917

The Progressive Era and Race: Reaction and Reform, 1900-1917


In this comprehensive, unflinching account, David W. Southern persuasively argues that race was the primary blind spot of the Progressive Movement. Based on the voluminous secondary works produced over the last forty years and his own primary research, Southern's synthesis vividly portrays the ruthless exploitation, brutality, and violence that whites inflicted on African Americans in the first two decades of the twentieth century. In the former Confederate states, where almost 90 percent of blacks resided, white progressives followed the lead of racist demagogues such as "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman and James Vardaman by consolidating the Jim Crow system of legal segregation and the disfranchisement of blacks, resulting in the emergence of the one-party Democratic South. When legal discrimination did not sufficiently subordinate blacks, southern whites resorted liberally to fraud, intimidation, and violence-most notably in ghastly lynchings and urban race riots.

Yet, most northern progressives were either indifferent to the fate of southern blacks or actively supported the social system in the South. Yankee reformers obsessed over the concept of race and became ensnared in a web of "scientific racism" that convinced them that blacks belonged to an inferior breed of human beings. The tenures of both Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote more about race than any other American president, and Woodrow Wilson, who was reared in the Deep South, proved disastrous for African Americans, who reached their "nadir" even as Wilson led the United States on a crusade to make the world safe for democracy.

Southern goes on to persuasively reveal that African Americans courageously fought to change the implacably racist system in which they lived, against overwhelming odds. Indeed, it was the rise of the militant "New Negro" during the Progressive Era that provoked much of the anti-black repression and violence. Dr. Southern further examines how the origins of the modern civil rights movement emerged in the wake of the rivalry between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, going beyond an analysis of their leadership to illuminate other important African American activists who held strong views of their own.

Finally, an epilogue assesses the malignant racial heritage of the progressives by looking at the discrimination against African Americans, both those in and newly returned home from the armed forces, during World War I and the numerous race riots in northern cities that were in part occasioned by the large-scale migration of southern blacks.


Every generation writes its own history for the reason that it sees the past in the foreshortened perspective of its own experience. This has surely been true of the writing of American history. The practical aim of our historiography is to give us a more informed sense of where we are going by helping us understand the road we took in getting where we are. As the nature and dimensions of American life are changing, so too are the themes of our historical writing. Today’s scholars are hard at work reconsidering every major aspect of the nation’s past: its politics, diplomacy, economy, society, recreation, mores and values, as well as status, ethnic, race, sexual, and family relations. The lists of series titles that appear at the back of this book will show at once that our historians are ever broadening the range of their studies.

The aim of this series is to offer our readers a survey of what today’s historians are saying about the central themes and aspects of the American past. To do this, we have invited to write for the series only scholars who have made notable contributions to the respective fields in which they are working. Drawing on primary and secondary materials, each volume presents a factual and narrative account of its particular subject, one that affords readers a basis for perceiving its larger dimensions and importance. Conscious that readers respond to the closeness and immediacy of a subject, each of our authors seeks to restore the past as an actual present, to revive it as a living reality. The individuals and groups who figure in the pages of our books ap-

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