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African-Americans in the Progressive Era


Portrait of Booker T. Washington, African American Activist and Reformist of the Progressive Era
nterim Archives / Contributor/ Archive Photos/ Getty Images
African-Americans in the Progressive Era

Ida B. Wells-Barnet

Public Domain
African-Americans in the Progressive Era

The Niagara Movement

Image Courtesy of Public Domain



Between the 1890s and the 1920s, the United States was experiencing rapid growth. Immigrants from eastern and southern Europe arrived in droves. Cites were overcrowded and those living in poverty suffered greatly. Politicians in large cities controlled their power through various political machines. Companies were creating monopolies and controlling many of the nation’s finances.

A concern emerged from many Americans who believed that great change was needed in society to protect everyday people. As a result, these people—social workers, journalists, even politicians—were known as reformers. And the era was known as the Progressive Movement. Yet one issue was consistently ignored: the plight of African-Americans in the United States. African-Americans were faced with consistent racism in the form of segregation in public spaces, lynchings, disenfranchisement from the political process, and no access to quality healthcare, education and housing.

To counter these injustices, African-American reformists also emerged to expose and then fight for equal rights in the United States.


Important Reformers:


  • Booker T. Washington: as educator and founder of Tuskegee Institute, Washington argued that African-Americans should learn trades that would offer them the opportunity to be progressive citizens. Instead of fighting against discrimination, Washington argued that African-Americans should use their education and knowledge to work with white Americans.
  • W.E.B Du Bois: founder of the Niagara Movement and later the NAACP, Du Bois disagreed greatly with Washington. He argued that African-Americans should consistently fight for racial equality.
  • Ida B. Wells: journalist who wrote about the horrors of lynching in the South.




  • National Association of Colored Women: founded in 1896, this organization's goal was to develop the economic, moral, religious and social welfare of women and children. The NACW also worked to end social and racial inequality.
  • Niagara Movement: founded in 1905 by William Monroe Trotter and W. E. B. Du Bois, the mission of this organization was to develop an aggressive way of fighting racial inequality.
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: as an outgrowth of the Niagara Movement, the NAACP was established in 1909. Since then the organization has been important to fighting social and racial inequality through legislation, court cases and protests.
  • National Urban League: established in 1910, this organization's mission was to end racial discrimination and provide economic empowerment to African-Americans who migrated from rural southern areas to northern cities through the Great Migration.


Women's Suffrage:


One of the major initiatives of the Progressive Era was the women's suffrage movement. However, many organizations that were established to fight for the voting rights of women either marginalized or all together ignored African-American women.

As a result, African-American women such as Mary Church Terrell became dedicated to organizing women on the local and national level to fight for equal rights in society.

The work of white suffrage organizations along with African-American women's organizations ultimately led to the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which granted women with the right to vote.




While mainstream newspapers during the Progressive Era focused on the horrors of urban blight and political corruption, lynching and the effects of Jim Crow laws were largely ignored. African-Americans began publishing daily and weekly newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, Amsterdam News and the Pittsburgh Courier to expose the local and national injustices of African-Americans. Known as the Black Press, journalists such as William Monroe Trotter, James Weldon Johnson and Ida B. Wells all wrote about lynching, segregation as well as the importance of becoming socially and politically active.

In addition, monthly publications such as The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP and Opportunity, published by the National Urban League became important to spreading the news about the positive achievements of African-Americans as well.


Effects of African-American Initiatives During the Progressive Era:


Although African-Americans fight to end discrimination did not lead to immediate changes in legislation, several changes did take place that impacted African-Americans. However, organizations such as the Niagara Movement, NACW, NAACP, NUL all led to building stronger African-American communities by providing healthcare, housing and educational services. The reporting of lynching and other acts of terror in African-American newspapers ultimately led to mainstream newspapers publishing articles and editorials on this issue, making it a national initiative. Lastly, the work of Washington, Du Bois, Wells, Terrell and countless others ultimately led to the protests of the Civil Rights Movement sixty years later.


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