African Americans in the Progressive Era

Fight for Recognition of African American Concerns in Era of Rapid Change

Booker T. Washington Giving a Speech

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The Progressive Era spanned the years from 1890–1920 when the United States was experiencing rapid growth. Immigrants from eastern and southern Europe arrived in droves. Cities were overcrowded, and those living in poverty suffered greatly. Politicians in the major cities controlled their power through various political machines. Companies were creating monopolies and controlling many of the nation’s finances.

The Progressive Movement

A concern emerged from many Americans who believed that great change was needed in society to protect everyday people. As a result, the concept of reform took place in society. Reformers such as social workers, journalists, educators, and even politicians emerged to change society. This was known as the Progressive Movement.

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 and disenfranchisement from the political process. Access to quality healthcare, education, and housing was scarce, and lynchings were rampant in the South.

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

African American Reformers of the Progressive Era

  • Booker T. Washington was an educator who established the 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 become self-sufficient in American society and not in competition with white Americans.
  • W.E.B Du Bois was the founder of the Niagara Movement and later the NAACP, Du Bois disagreed with Washington. He argued that African Americans should consistently fight for racial equality.
  • Ida B. Wells was a journalist who wrote about the horrors of lynching in the South. Wells' work made her a muckraker, one of several White and Black journalists who wrote news stories about social, political, and economic conditions that led to changes. Wells' reporting led to the development of the Anti-Lynching Campaign.


  • National Association of Colored Women was established in 1896 by a group of middle-class African American women. The goal of the NACW 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 was developed in 1905 by William Monroe Trotter and W. E. B. Du Bois. Trotter and DuBois' mission was to develop an aggressive way of fighting racial inequality.
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was an outgrowth of the Niagara Movement and was established in 1909. Since then the organization has been essential to fighting social and racial inequality through legislation, court cases, and protests.
  • National Urban League was established in 1910, this organization's mission was to end racial discrimination and provide economic empowerment to African Americans who migrated from southern rural 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 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 the right to vote.

African American Newspapers

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 and segregation as well as the importance of becoming socially and politically active.

Monthly publications such as "The Crisis," the official magazine of the NAACP and Opportunity, published by the National Urban League became necessary to spread the news about the positive achievements of African Americans as well.

Effects of African American Initiatives During the Progressive Era

Although the African American fight to end discrimination did not lead to immediate changes in legislation, several changes did take place that impacted African Americans. Organizations such as the Niagara Movement, NACW, NAACP, NUL all resulted in 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.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Diner, Steven J. "A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era." New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.
  • Frankel, Noralee and Nancy S. Dye (eds.) "Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era." Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1991.
  • Franklin, Jimmie. "Blacks and the Progressive Movement: Emergence of a New Synthesis." OAH Magazine of History 13.3 (1999): 20–23. Print.
  • McGerr, Michael E. "A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920." Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Stovall, Mary E. "The 'Chicago Defender' in the Progressive Era." Illinois Historical Journal 83.3 (1990): 159–72. Print.
  • Stromqvist, Sheldon. "Reinventing 'The People': The Progressive Movement, the Class Problem, and the Origins of Modern Liberalism." Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005.
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Lewis, Femi. "African Americans in the Progressive Era." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Femi. (2023, April 5). African Americans in the Progressive Era. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "African Americans in the Progressive Era." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).