THE DISINHERITED: PROGRESSIVISM’S LIMITS
Progressive reformers certainly were unable to effect positive change for all Americans and in all aspects of life, liberty, and happiness. There were three groups of Americans who typically did not realize change or were not the focus of Progressive reformers: Blacks, Indians, and Women.
Reconstruction resulted in new rights, liberties, and opportunities for the black people throughout the United States. The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment provided for equal treatment of all citizens, and the Fifteenth Amendment provided for universal male suffrage. However, those rights existed on paper but not in practice. Most of the civil rights groups and legislation of the 1870s was disbanded, declared unconstitutional, or severely limited in interpretation, such as the 1875 Civil Rights Acts in which the Supreme Court declared that federal laws regarding equal treatment applied to states, thus it was not illegal or unconstitutional for individuals to discriminate, such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Segregation was codified in the decades following the Civil War. Across the South “Black Codes” created two socio-legal systems: one for white people and one for black people. Blacks were typically prohibited from living within city limits, thus they were forced to live outside the white populations. Blacks and whites were prohibited from working together, from traveling together, or from taking advantage of the same educational opportunities.
Black men were disenfranchised through the use of poll taxes or literacy tests. If you could not pay the tax or could not pass the literacy examination, then you were prohibited from voting. Overwhelmingly, blacks were the targets of these new laws.
The Supreme Court declared the constitutionality of many southern laws that created separate living areas, work areas, and educational opportunities for white and black citizens. Plessy v. Ferguson, in 1896, established the “separate but equal” clause of the U.S. Constitution when the Supreme Court sided with the state of Louisiana, which had laws prohibiting blacks and whites from traveling on the same trains. As Justice Henry Brown wrote, “The object of the [Fourteenth A]mendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” In other words, states were not discriminating if states provided for separate facilities in regards to non-political matters based on racial ideas because of the Supreme Court’s use of the term “equal.” For Americans today, “equal” means the same. For the Supreme Court in the late nineteenth century, “equal” meant similar but not the same. For example, today your professors are prohibited from mandating exams based on race or gender (all female students will take one exam while all male students take another exam), yet for Progressive era Americans you were being treated equally as long as both groups were allowed access to educational opportunities.
Progressive presidents tended to ignore the plight of African Americans as well as their calls for equality. Roosevelt did invite Booker T. Washington to a White House dinner. A Memphis newspaper called Roosevelt’s decision to eat with a black man a “damnable outrage.” Roosevelt, like his progressive presidential colleagues, tended to emphasize his connections to the South, even going so far as to send flowers to the widow of the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. Wilson was from the South (born in Virginia). As president, Wilson hosted a White House screening of the film Birth of a Nation, which was based on the novel “The Klansmen,” in which the Klan was shown to be heroes to the South and protectors of southern women’s purity while also portraying blacks as alcohol-fueled, sex-crazed, people unwilling, unable, and uninterested in working for a living.
Another reason why Progressive reforms failed to reach most African Americans was the popularly-held notion of “White Man’s Burden.” Rudyard Kipling, a British subject who was born and worked in imperial India, wrote often acknowledging the trials and tribulations of the British imperial system, however, his poem while also extolling the necessity of Britain’s empire because of the good being performed around the world in bringing western political, social, economic, and very importantly, religious ideas to the heathens of the world. He penned this 1899 poem, entitled “White Man’s Burden” in part, to give support to the American efforts in the Philippines, as if to poetically assure Americans that their cause was just and noble:
Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
Overwhelmingly, Progressive reformers did not look upon African Americans as needing tutelage, rather they looked upon the need of bringing American political, social, economic, and religious ideas to the less-fortunate around the world, such as in the Philippines. Senator Albert Beveridge (R-Ind) articulated the necessity of the United States being active in helping to civilize the Philippine people arguing that unless the U.S. helped them to develop western ideas and practices over there, those people might migrate to the United States. Beveridge also believed in the special mission of the United States, evidence by his 1898 speech entitled “March of the Flag” when he asked, “Therefore, in this campaign, the question is larger than a party question. It is an American question. It is a world question. Shall the American people continue their march toward the commercial supremacy of the world? Shall free institutions broaden their blessed reign as the children of liberty wax in strength, until the empire of our principles is established over the hearts of all mankind?”
During the Progressive Era, American decision-makers’ attentions were certainly not focused on the plight of minorities. One sad reality of the federal government turning their backs towards the newly-freed citizens in 1877 was lynching. The episodes of lynchings throughout the South increased ach decade. In the wake of the Great War, blacks began to be lynched in increasing numbers in the North and in the West. Those who participated in these murders typically held no fear of arrest or incarceration as many of the perpetrators had their photograph taken next to the dead black people. These photos were then sold as souvenirs throughout the United States.
Lynchings were extrajudicial punishment and thus were, by definition, murder. However, almost no one was arrested for these murders. Local and state officials turned blind eyes, and at times were even complicit in the lynchings. Thus, American reformers, such as Ida B. Wells, sought help from the federal government. After the death of three close friends by the hands of a white mob, and after no support from the local police, Wells wrote: “The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. There is therefore only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.”
Wells tried, unsuccessfully, to get the U.S. Congress to make lynching a federal crime. She did succeed, however, in helping black women by founding the National Association of Colored Women as well as helping all black people through the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She worked tirelessly for a wide range of reform movements including woman suffrage. Nonetheless, she is most known for her work regarding lynching, publishing many works to include an 1895 book entitled The Red Record. Following World War II President Harry S. Truman supported legislation to make lynching a federal crime. He too was unsuccessful. Interestingly enough, while most Progressive reform bypassed African Americans, the reality of marginalized black male voters might have been one reason why so many black women such as Ida B. Wells became active in so many Progressive Era movements.
Throughout Reconstruction, U.S. policy towards Native Americans typically resulted in their marginalization. Believing in his invincibility, General George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry to their ultimate demise in the early summer of 1876 in an area of the Dakota Territory known as Greasy Grass by the Lakota Sioux. The “Battle of Little Bighorn,” as Americans referred to the first successful plains Indians assault on U.S. forces since the Blackhawk Wars of the early nineteenth century, launched the career of Ruth Custer as a professional widow and refocused American might to remove the “Indian threat” from the West (especially in areas were Americans discovered huge quantities of gold, such as in the Black Hills region of the Dakota Territory). American pursuit of the various Sioux Indians ended in December 1890 when several hundred women and children were gunned down by elements of the new 7th Cavalry (Custer’s old unit) using cannons and the new Gatling gun, which fired hundreds of rounds per minute. Forced upon the reservation, the U.S .government concluded the “Indian Wars,” which began during the early colonial period.
Yet the reservation system seemed to run counter to American ideas on life, liberty, and property ownership since the Indians were prohibited from private ownership on the reservations and of course the Homestead Act (1862) did not apply to Indians. Senator Dawes introduced a new way of organizing the reservations along the ideas of American life, liberty, and property rights.
The Dawes-Severalty Act cut the reservations into homesteads. Indians were allowed to privately own their own homesteads, provided that they did not engage in any “Indian” activities. In fact, Indians were allowed to become American citizens, provided that they “adopted the habits of civilized life.” To help the Indians adopt said “civilized life” and to evolve into proper Americans, Indian schools began all over the country with the financial support of the U.S. government and under the control, typically, of Christian missionary organizations. One of the most well-known of these schools was located in Pennsylvania, the Carlisle School, established by an Army officer named Richard Pratt who spent some of his early military career attempting to educate Indian prisoners. The Carlisle school came into existence because Pratt was unsuccessful in placing any of his released students into traditional universities. Not unlike blacks or women, most American universities refused to accept Indians as students.
Regardless if it was at the Carlisle school or any one of the over 150 similar schools throughout the United States by 1900, Indian children were removed from their tribal-familial surroundings and taken to these schools where they would be dressed like Americans, have their hair cut like Americans, and be taught like Americans with the hope that upon graduation these folks who resembled Indians but acted, spoke, and thought like Americans would return to their tribal-familial lands and lead the continued Americanization of their people. Some Carlisle graduates went on to prosper such as a Sioux named Ohiyesa who eventually earned a degree in medicine from the Catholic-run Boston University, completed his transformation by adopting a new name: Charles Eastman and marrying a white woman and the two spent their lives working to help alleviate the plight of Indians throughout the United States. Another Carlisle graduate, Reginald Oshkosh, used the tools he developed to successfully help his people (the Menomonee tribe in Wisconsin) prevent the state and federal governments from illegally seizing tribal lands.
Again, was this more about helping these people or more about controlling these people? Overall, Progressive reformers tended to most ignore the plight (and fate) of Native Americans. In 1924, Indians were recognized as citizens and granted all rights and privileges of citizenship(three years after women were granted the right to vote). Most remain on ancestral lands today.
One might be surprised to see the inclusion of women as a marginalized group akin to Indians and African Americans. On one hand, women during the Progressive Era successfully gained rights that put them on an equal political playing field with men and women certainly were exceptionally active in leading many of the Progressive reform movements, especially in regards to social programs. Nonetheless, not unlike the Gilded Age, if you scratched the golden surface of women’s accomplishments, you would see the dross of how the Progressive Era affected women.
One of the largest reform movements to target women focused on the home. Traditional Victorian homes were too large, nebulous, and ineffectively designed. To help women, some reformers, such as Marion Talbot, called for families to leave their family-unfriendly homes and move into apartments that would be easier for women to clean and manage. Cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing were no longer tasks to be performed without thought or preparation. Instead, housewives could benefit from a more scientific approach to their God-given duties. In response to the scientific management movement “home economics” courses were offered in colleges so that middle-class women could learn how to properly manage all facets of their future husbands’ homes. And while you might conclude that women’s participation in college was necessarily beneficial, in this case these college classes were designed and offered to further entrench sexual division of labor. Women were in charge of governing their homes, and men were in charge of governing the world.
Still, some reformers believed that women’s natural jobs in managing the household would necessarily prepare them for responsibilities in public life, as argued by Ellen Richards, a home economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Richards was an exception, however because after marrying a colleague at MIT, she did not resign her post. The reality for most American women was that marriage signaled the end of their professional life and the beginning of their life as a housewife and mother.
Of course women participated in the household income by working outside of the home. Factory work was relatively easy to secure, but the hours were long, the health and safety of the employees were typically not concerns of their employers, and the pay was low. Nevertheless, women (especially immigrants) easily found jobs in textile factories. In an era that lacked any sort of meaningful federal, state, or local regulation or oversight of industries, workers were occasionally injured and even killed. Possibly no better example of such was the fire that engulfed the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1911.
Located in New York City, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company employed women, men, and children. To ensure that the workers did not leave their shifts prematurely, duck out for unofficial breaks, or otherwise engage in activities that slowed down production, the owner of the factory nailed the windows shut. The doors were locked and many entrance ways were blocked by a steel security gate. Unable to safely escape when a fire broke out among the three floors of a ten-story building, many workers broke windows opened and took a leap of faith -only to meet their certain demise upon slamming into the sidewalks below. Not unlike those who jumped from the Twin Towers ninety years later, the New Yorkers were shocked as person after person jumped to their deaths.
According to a New York Times eyewitness, “one poor little creature jumped. There was a plate glass protection over part of the sidewalk, but she crasjed through it, wrecking it and breaking her body nto a thousand piece.”
Approximately 146 people perished -some from jumping to their death, others from being burned alive, while others died from smoke inhalation. One result of the fire and deaths was the creation of the New York State Factory Commission. Tasked with regulating the health and safety issues of factory workers, the Commission was chaired by Robert Wagner, co-chaired by Al Smith, and Frances Perkins was the chief Investigator. Wagner and Smith will play very important roles regarding labor during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (the later will become the first female Cabinet member).
Finally, there was the “servant girl problem.” Young women (and overwhelming immigrants) took domestic housekeeping jobs for wealthy families throughout the U.S. These workers were typically the first ones up and the last ones to bed in their households. They worked at least six days a week and were typically given part of Sundays off to attend church. They cleaned the homes, cooked the families’ food, and watched over the children. They did the laundry and the shopping and served the family and guests. Upper-class families who typically hired these women tended not to embrace the notion that there existed any problem with these young girls working 16 hours a day, six days a week. Regardless of the physical, verbal and sexual abuse that these servant girls routinely experienced, middle-class reformers were unable to effect any relevant change partly due to the fact that these servant girls worked in private homes and usually out of the public eye. For some, the servant girl problem was more comical than serious. In 1905 a silent film entitled “The Servant Girl Problem” demonstrated how a bumbling servant girl caused havoc in an American household. One year later the Bostonian social reformer Edward Filene (owner of Filene’s department stores) published an article in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, arguing that servant girls’ working conditions were not as bad as women working in factories or even department stores. Filene argued that working conditions worsened in conjunction with jobs that lacked skills. Thus, as working in factories took the least amount of skill, working conditions for women were worse in factories. You had to be skillful, a la Christine Frederick, to work as a servant girl so the plight of “servant girls” would be passed over by Progressive reformers.
Emma Smith DeVoe, an example of a Progressive era reformer and in the mold of her fellow reformers, did not quit when women were granted the right to vote in her new home state of Washington in 1910. DeVoe believed that women still lacked political rights, and in 1911 she helped create the National Council of Women Voters, the forerunner for today’s League of Women Voters. Rising to the position of president, DeVoe worked tirelessly for the adoption of women’s suffrage and was present when Washington voted in support of the Nineteenth Amendment on March 23, 1920. DeVoe died in 1927 at the age of 79. Announcing her death, a Seattle-area newspaper called DeVoe a “Mother of Woman Suffrage.”
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