The Progressive Era

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Please be specific: to what extent did “Pan-Africanism” capture the issues facing black Americans in the Progressive Era?  

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The Progressive Era was a time of widespread reform in the United States. It sought to give people more political power, it extended voting rights to women, and it called for government regulation to improve working and living conditions for many. However, black Americans were largely ignored or even deliberately discriminated against by the Progressives.

For black Americans, this time period of the early twentieth century was a time of continued poverty, legal and social discrimination, and violent intimidation. Many black Americans were sharecroppers or tenant farmers—an economic condition in which one was in a constant cycle of debt to a landlord or creditor. In the South, blacks were living under Jim Crow laws, which segregated them. They were largely unable to vote due to literacy requirements, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes. There was also a large amount of racial violence. Lynchings were commonplace in the United States at this time. For example, in numbers tabulated by Ida B. Wells, there were 160 reported cases of blacks being lynched in 1892 (source: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/1900-ida-b-wells-lynch-law-america/).

Into this climate arose a growing Pan-African movement in the United States. The idea of Pan-Africanism was not new, nor was its rise in popularity limited the the US. A Pan-African Conference held in London in 1900 hosted representatives from Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe (source: http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-pan-africanism.html). A Jamaican named Marcus Garvey became involved in this movement and became a champion for it in the United States. He stressed pride in African heritage and culture. He formed the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) to promote resettlement of blacks in Africa and the sponsorship of black owned businesses in the US. As part of this, he created his own company—the Black Star Line Steamship Company. The vision was that this company could facilitate trade between blacks in the Western Hemisphere with those in Africa. He also supported the idea of repatriating blacks from the Americas to Africa. At a UNIA conference in 1920, the Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World was adopted. It called for “complete control of our social institutions without interference by any alien race or races” (source: http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-pan-africanism.html). While Garvey’s company and ideas of repatriation largely failed, his ideas lived on in America.

This growing sense of pride and independence among black Americans dovetailed with the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the North. In northern cities, blacks continued to face discrimination but also created pockets within these cities where they could start and support black-owned businesses and where their culture could flourish. One notable example is Harlem in New York and the famous Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. So, while the Progressive movement itself did not address the concerns of black America, black Americans were participating in this climate of reform and were demanding changes to their economic, legal, and social conditions.

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