Progressive Era

By: Walter L. Buenger

Type: General Entry

Published: May 1, 1995

Updated: August 28, 2020

Progress? Those who assess the Progressive Era often come away with more questions than answers. They start with the very idea of progress in a time of state-sanctioned or at least state-ignored violence and discrimination against Mexican Americans and African Americans. They struggle over the forced conformity of the prohibition cause and such other reforms as the English-only movement. They highlight the uneven nature of most reforms, most especially woman suffrage that secured the vote for more-affluent White women and left behind the poor and members of minority groups. They point to the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s as the ultimate and extreme embodiment of some elements of Progressivism. When they move on to the word “Era,” they wonder when did it actually start and when did it end. Was it simply confined to 1900–1920?

Progressivism was an ideal, an aspiration to construct a better world through science, engineering, education, wisely-constructed laws, and more modern social norms and habits. Traces of progressivism appeared as early as 1882 with the formation of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and lasted as late as the triumph of Republican candidate Herbert Hoover, the engineer and structural designer of a better society (not to mention a Protestant running against a Catholic), in the 1928 presidential election in Texas. Still the heyday of progressivism and of the Progressive Era was about 1898 to 1924, from the clear demise of Populism to the triumph of Miriam A. Ferguson over a Klan-backed candidate in the race for governor of Texas. Through this roughly twenty-five-year span, many Texans aspired for ideals and ignored the reality that their resulting actions often worsened the conditions of marginalized Texans and those outside the in-crowd.

Understanding this chaotic time requires following thematic strands instead of simply moving along chronologically. These strands include demographic change, politics as a window to the entire era, economic development, changing gender and class roles, the impact of World War I, and the dramatic juxtaposition of extreme violence and a drive to modernize.

Placing the era in demographic context starts with two of the most fine-grained census records in Texas history: the 1887 state census and the 1930 U.S. census. The 1887 census put the total population at 2,015,032. Anglos, listed as “Americans” on the census, comprised just over 64 percent of the of the total population—about 57 percent of that total were Anglos whose roots traced back to the U.S. South and the other 7 percent were Anglos whose roots traced back to northern states. African Americans made up almost 20 percent, and European ethnic groups, primarily Germans and Czechs, made up just over 10 percent. Tejanos made up almost 4 percent. The category recorded as “other nations” (which included the Chinese) made up less than 2 percent of the population. In 1930 the total population had increased to 5,824,715. Of that total, approximately 60 percent (a decrease in percentage from the 1887 state census figure) constituted Anglos—54 percent with southern roots and 6 percent from northern states. African Americans had dropped to 15 percent of the population, and European ethnic groups stood at 8 percent. Tejanos and ethnic Mexicans surged to 12 percent of the population. Other nationalities comprised the remaining percentage, approximately 5 percent, of the population. While the total population increased steadily, hitting 3,048,710 in 1900 and 4,663,228 in 1920, the composition of that population changed dramatically. Restriction of European immigration during and after World War I and a significant upswing in immigration from Mexico at the same time brought major change. In the 1910s and early 1920s a booming economy in Texas cities that drew new residents and the migration of African Americans out of the state also brought change. Spanish speakers replaced German speakers as the largest language group besides English, and African Americans and Southern Anglos declined as a percentage of the whole. Cities emerged.

While the majority of all Texans during the entire Progressive Era lived in rural areas (under a population of 2,500), an increasingly large percentage lived in cities. In 1900 no Texas cities had more than 100,000 in population, but by 1920 four surpassed that figure. By 1930 five cities exceeded 100,000. At the same time smaller cities also grew, and, starting in the World War I years, the shift of rural African Americans to Texas cities quickly accelerated. A new, more urban and more cosmopolitan Texas frightened some but offered hope for a better life to many.

Texans in urban centers, both small and large, often led the way on various political and public policy innovations, including public health, education, voter suppression, woman suffrage, prohibition, segregation, and the state’s role in business and the economy. In 1903 the state reorganized older health initiatives under the umbrella of the Department of Public Health and Vital Statistics (see TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH). Texans had long employed quarantines to combat infectious diseases such as yellow fever and that continued, but Texans also embarked on new efforts to improve the water supply, enhance sanitation, limit the impact of mosquitoes, and other measures to combat disease. During the World War I years, with the arrival of young soldiers at Texas military bases, the Department of Health led the way in controlling the spread of venereal disease. Sanitation came to be a major concern as cities grew, and in rural areas efforts expanded to combat such diseases as hookworm. In general the upsurge in public health efforts reflected not only greater population density, but the efforts of professional medical associations and the growing influence and faith in science by those professionals. As training and certification requirements increased for medical professionals and as those professionals joined together in various organizations, they increasingly pressured state government to create new health policies, and they encouraged higher standards among their members. Local health and sanitation efforts also increased, often led by women working through women’s clubs who championed the cause of children, mothers, public sanitation, and efforts to protect families from communicable diseases. The impact of the 1918–19 Spanish influenza pandemic brought particular challenges that were met—often inadequately—by the tried and true methods of government-enforced quarantines and isolation. Professionalization, state regulation, and new medical and sanitation practices worked together to change the politics of health on the local and state level

Education also entered the political arena in new ways. The state and local areas expanded the public school systems to include high school education in larger cities and greater availability of college education for men and women, but segregated education also expanded and grew more stringent. Working under the doctrine of “separate but equal,” the state gradually, often utilizing federal funds and federal initiatives, upgraded what is now Prairie View A&M University to include a more rigorous curriculum and access to an agricultural experiment station. This trend continued into the 1920s when a nursing school was added, but no other public institutions of higher education in Texas were available to African Americans (see EDUCATION FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS). Meanwhile the state added, often after intense lobbying by local officials, what became Texas State University, Sul Ross University, and Texas Tech University among others. Texas A&M University and the University of Texas also grew and expanded during the Progressive Era, and the discovery of oil on state-owned land in West Texas in 1923 allowed the rapid growth of the Permanent University Fund and corresponding further growth of the two flagship universities. Rivalry between the two and arguments over control of their budgets often dominated legislative and gubernatorial politics, and in the case of Governor James E. Ferguson, university budget disputes contributed to his impeachment in 1917.

Education also became more uniform with the growing move from scattered common schools and a county-wide system to consolidated and independent school districts that followed a plan put forward by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. That position became an elected office in 1905 and steadily gained more power and authority to distribute funds, make textbooks available, and in other ways support and regulate the state’s schools. By the early 1920s regulations included a requirement that only English be spoken and used for instruction in Texas schools. This changed decades of bilingual education in German, Czech, or Spanish as well as English in many Texas schools.   

All in all, education and education politics resided at the heart of the Progressive Era and demonstrated faith in the ability of new learning to bring improvement to society, the unequal treatment of African Americans and Mexican Americans, and the contentious political competition for state resources. Ironically it also demonstrated one of the central paradoxes of the Progressive Era: demands for uniformity in the name of science and progress accompanied the complete exclusion of African Americans and ethnic Mexicans from White schools.

While state and local politicians focused on education at all levels, much of the energy and creativity of White politicians was directed toward suppressing the vote of African Americans and to some degree suppressing the vote in general. In 1902 the state legislature sent to the voters a Poll Tax Amendment to the state constitution and described it as a great political reform that would purify the electoral process and protect the sanctity of elections. The effort to limit the vote, however, was clearly aimed at the poor and especially at African Americans. Perhaps this was an outgrowth of the intense competition between the Populists and the Democrats in the 1890s with Democrats moving to undercut the voting base of potential opponents. Viewed in another way, however, local customs and public policies that encouraged often violent racial discrimination and voter suppression simply evolved into state law. As early as the late 1880s political groups and locally-organized efforts pushed African Americans out of politics in counties with a large African American population that tended to vote for Democratic opponents. These efforts, themselves perhaps based on what had happened in Harrison County earlier, were copied in other locales and sometimes went by the name of the White Man’s Union (see WHITE MAN’S UNION ASSOCIATIONS). The Union would come together, agree on a candidate, and consolidate support for that candidate. Members of these county-level groups often used fraud, violence, and intimidation to suppress the African American vote and the vote of Populists. Again on the county level, as some counties moved from a convention system to a primary system, the leaders of the Democratic party often required a test oath that stipulated that voters in the party primary must be White and have supported the nominee of the Democratic party in the last general election. Starting in 1903 the state legislature created and then continually refined a primary system aimed at ending the alleged abuses that went with selecting a party candidate by the older convention system. Using the same language as the local county primaries of previous years the state Democratic party limited its voters to Whites only (see WHITE PRIMARY). In 1923 this White Democratic primary became enshrined in state law. The demise of the Populist party (see PEOPLE’S PARTY), local level violence and intimidation, efforts by White Republicans to transform their party in the lily-White movement (and the corresponding downturn in party voter strength), and the loss of African American and poorer voters that came with the poll tax meant that by 1905 the Democratic primary emerged as the only election that mattered. Voter participation declined precipitously. For example, about 545,000 Texans voted in the 1896 presidential election, and about 234,000 voted in the 1904 presidential election. In addition, except for some emerging urban centers, Democrats achieved in every corner of Texas what former governor Francis Richard Lubbock insisted came at the close of Reconstruction: “white supremacy and Democratic rule.” In their eyes this was one of the great Progressive Era reforms with fraud, violence, and intimidation replaced by law as a means to suppress the vote of poor Whites, African Americans, and in some areas Mexican Americans.

Ethnic Mexican voters and ethnic European voters in some ways formed a special class of voters. From the 1870s into the 1920s immigrants from another country could vote in Texas even if they were not yet citizens. They simply had to have resided in the state for one year and the locale where they voted for six months. They also had to declare that they intended to become citizens. Ending this possibility was one of the Progressive reforms often discussed after the start of World War I and the uptick of immigration from Mexico. As part of a surge of anti-immigrant laws in the 1920s this voting provision was eliminated.

Ironically and revealingly, excluding immigrant voters came at the same time as extending the vote to women, at least White more affluent women. Advocates of the vote for women surfaced as early as the Constitutional Convention of 1868–69. The movement for woman suffrage, however, in many ways grew from the founding of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in the early 1880s and the rise of grassroots organizing, especially in the growing towns and cities of the state. Over the years the linkage of suffrage and prohibition continued, and opponents and supporters of one tended to oppose or support the other. This bundling of Progressive causes helped to explain the ups and downs of the suffrage movement, which tended to be well-organized when and where advocacy of a broad range of Progressive reforms increased. As the new century unfolded, for example, the number of various types of clubs for women grew across the state and became increasingly well-organized and concerned with Progressive reforms and issues of the day including suffrage. A prominent and wealthy club woman, Mary Eleanor Brackenridge led the debate about suffrage in San Antonio and in 1913 was named the president of the revived Texas Woman Suffrage Association (see TEXAS EQUAL SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION). Minnie Fisher Cunningham of Galveston assumed leadership of that organization by 1915 and in the years that followed led an effective lobbying effort in the state legislature to secure the vote for women. Getting a super majority in the legislature (required to put a constitutional amendment before voters) proved difficult, but women did secure a change in the laws governing primaries and in 1918 voted in the Democratic primary. Part of the motivation of members of the legislature seems to have been to secure the vote of Progressive women for William P. Hobby in his gubernatorial campaign against the recently-impeached governor, Jim. Ferguson. Hobby advocated prohibition. Ferguson opposed it, and this linkage of suffrage supporters, prohibition, and anti-Fegusonism continued a long-running pattern. In addition, in 1918 Annie Webb Blanton, a leading advocate of education reform and the vote for women, campaigned for the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and her campaign was closely linked to the Hobby campaign. Both Hobby and Blanton won with Blanton becoming the first woman to hold statewide office in the history of Texas. 

Besides this tendency for support of suffrage to be bundled with other Progressive causes, White suffrage supporters, like the entire Progressive Movement, treated African Americans as unequal citizens. Perhaps they did so to reassure White male voters, but they also probably shared in this broader cultural current. It was a White’s-only reform made possible by the reality that other Progressive reforms such as the poll tax and the White primary had largely eliminated a meaningful Black vote.

The vote for women in all elections eventually came from the national level down. The state legislature did put an amendment to the state constitution granting the vote to women before the public in 1919, but it was coupled with a provision that would have taken the vote away from immigrants who declared they intended to become citizens. Both lost in an election where immigrants could vote and women could not. Later that same year the state legislature made Texas the ninth state overall to approve the Nineteenth Amendment granting full suffrage to women, and Texas women voted in a general election for the first time in 1920.

Prohibition, like suffrage reform had roots back to the 1880s. Besides the rise of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, that decade saw the start of a distinct Prohibition party that offered candidates for office and the growth of a prohibitionist wing of the Democratic party. In 1887 advocates won the chance to vote on a statewide ban on the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol. It lost badly in almost all parts of the state, but working class precincts in cities and counties dominated by European ethnic groups, African Americans, and Mexican Americans emerged as enduring strongholds of the anti-Prohibition cause. During the next few decades Prohibitionists pursued a strategy of seeking local option laws that banned alcohol. Using the local option provision of the Constitution of 1876, advocates often turned counties and precincts “dry,” but they argued these local laws could easily be evaded by thirsty Texans who crossed the boundaries to “wet” counties and precincts. In 1911 Texans again voted on a statewide prohibition amendment, and again it lost. This time, however, the amendment lost by only a few thousand votes. Voting restrictions and the growing strength of a wide array of Progressive reform objectives, including especially woman suffrage, seem to have accounted for the rise in the prohibitionist total. Opposition again centered in areas dominated by working-class Whites, European ethnic communities, African Americans, and Mexican Americans. By this time the key issue was as much resistance to cultural conformity and uniformity as it was prohibition. The hallmarks of progressivism such as social control, English only, uniform state level education requirements, and a host of others angered those outside the Anglo and more affluent heart of progressivism. 

On the federal level, Texas senator John Morris Sheppard who assumed office in 1913 took a leading role in promoting prohibition, and his efforts stimulated growing interest. After U.S. entry into World War I in Texas, as in other places, the cause of prohibition benefitted from a rise in anti-German sentiment and attacks on “German beer barons.” (The largest breweries in Texas and much of the country were typically controlled by ethnic German families.) A general drive to protect soldiers from what was often labeled vice also increased support. In late 1917 the Eighteenth Amendment passed out of the U.S. Congress and was sent to the states, and it was approved by the Texas legislature in 1918. In 1919 Texas voters also finally approved a prohibition amendment to the state constitution, but as was true of woman suffrage, much of the final push came from the national level down. Uniformity and conformity seemed to have carried the day.

Prohibitionists won their long-sought law, but in many ways they lost the fight to enforce that law. Production and consumption of beer and wine continued in rural counties dominated by European ethnic communities, and alcohol in many forms flowed across the border with Mexico. Access to liquor did not disappear for those determined to have it, and enforcement became a hot political issue. Opponents to the Progressive drive for uniformity and conformity did not give up easily.

Ironically (and there were many ironies about progressivism) in one major area Progressives sought not conformity but uniform exclusion of African Americans and ethnic Mexicans from the White sphere. As previously discussed, voting was one obvious and early example of segregation, but by 1920 almost everything imaginable was segregated, including schools, drinking fountains, public restrooms, restaurants, public transportation, residential neighborhoods, and more. Churches were among the earliest institutions to segregate after the Civil War, and often did so because African Americans left White churches and formed their own organizations. As public schools evolved over the twenty years after the close of the war, they were often segregated into three school systems: White, Black, and Mexican American. In 1891 the Texas legislature passed a law mandating separate cars for White and Black customers of railroad lines, and during the next thirty years the legal web separating White and Black grew increasingly elaborate. By local custom Mexican Americans were also usually segregated wherever they were found in larger numbers. This segregation extended to the state’s colleges and universities, both public and private. Although some Tejanos attended major public universities, no African Americans attended the University of Texas and Texas A&M until the 1950s and 1960s. While education funding and funding for other public facilities was supposed to follow the “separate but equal” doctrine put forward in the United States Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), poor funding, shoddy accommodations, and generally unequal treatment characterized the schools and public facilities used by Blacks and Mexican Americans. Those considered less White certainly did not benefit fully from Progressive reforms, and echoes of a Black/White binary typical of the South existed. That binary, of course, existed with the Texas twist of ethnic Europeans and ethnic Mexicans being in the mix.

In one area, however, Texas and Texas politics in the Progressive Era varied substantially from states like Mississippi—business regulation. Starting with the creation of the Railroad Commission in 1891 and continuing on to the inclusion of regulation of oil and gas in its duties in 1917, Texas politicians created one of the most influential regulatory agencies in the country. Originally established to control intrastate railroad rates, the Railroad Commission’s powers, although checked from time to time by federal laws and court decisions, gradually expanded to cover all forms of regulation of public transportation and eventually petroleum. As Texas emerged as a major producer of oil and gas, the role of the agency soared. In 1905 the state legislature also created a state banking system to provide capital and financial services to a broader array of Texans than the national or private banking systems (see BANKS AND BANKING). In an effort to stabilize those banks, the legislature passed a law in 1909 that guaranteed bank deposits in state-regulated banks and predated the Federal Deposit Insurance program by almost twenty-five years. In addition in 1907 during the administration of Governor Thomas M. Campbell, the legislature passed the Robertson Insurance Law that required insurance companies to reinvest part of their profits in Texas. All of these regulatory measures reflected a general anti-colonialism among Texas Progressives that caused them to work for measures that ensured Texans some freedom from the control of Northeast money centers.

In essence then, looking through the window of politics reveals a strong and sometimes surprising willingness to harness the power of state and local government to achieve economic growth. The purpose of the 1891 law creating a railroad commission, for example, was to allow the economy of rural areas, small towns, and emerging cities to grow, and, within limits, Texans proved relatively successful in achieving economic growth assisted by an active government. Certainly that was the point of business regulation and the point of the cooperation between government and business leaders that allowed such things as the construction of the Houston Ship Channel in the 1910s. Texans also benefitted from four fortuitous circumstances: the expansion of cotton production into extremely fertile regions, the discovery of oil and spin-offs from oil production, the expansion of a lumber industry and the harvesting of old-growth forests in East Texas, and the growing demand for beef and other animal products. All of these demanded transportation improvements and adequate access to capital to achieve success. It was no accident that these were areas of extreme interest in Texas politics and that public/private partnerships emerged to build railroads; regulate freight rates; promote the efficient production, refining, and transportation of petroleum; build up a state and local banking system, and ensure access to investment capital.

It was also no accident that this public/private partnership was a partnership with local elites that left out workers and landless farmers. One of the most striking indicators of what economic development boiled down to was the dramatic rise in the number of sharecroppers and tenant farmers in Texas. In 1900 about 50 percent of all Texas farmers were tenants who farmed someone else’s land, and by 1930 more than 60 percent engaged in farm tenancy. The poorest of these were caught in a crop lien system where they mortgaged their future crop for money to put food on the table and finance their agricultural efforts. Since the risk was high, the interest on these loans was high, and many poor farmers were stuck barely breaking even or owing money at the end of the year. Poverty increased along with plenty.

That plenty derived not just from a public/private partnership, but from taking advantage of the Progressive business principles of the day: vertical and horizontal integration; mechanization of production and handling of goods; and lower-cost, highly-publicized alternatives for the sale of consumer products. One of Houston’s largest and most important firms—Anderson, Clayton and Company—was a prime example of these trends. Originally founded in Oklahoma City early in the twentieth century, the cotton marketing company was soon in Houston, the place where “seventeen railroads met the sea.” In 1880 cotton grew on about 2.5 million acres in Texas, but by 1926 it grew on 18 million acres (see COTTON CULTURE). Taking advantage of higher volume and enhanced methods of handling cotton, Anderson, Clayton and Company increased its profit margins. As long as volume remained high and handling efficient, it made money buying and selling cotton even if the market price went up or down. As the company made more money it could pay a slightly better price for cotton, driving out competitors and eventually becoming one of the largest cotton marketing companies in the world. It also expanded into the ginning of cotton and the production, sale, and marketing of cottonseed meal and oil products (see COTTONSEED INDUSTRY). The company’s owners also ensured access to capital by building close connections with Houston’s major banks. Bigness brought profits and prosperity to all those connected to Anderson, Clayton and Company, including the city of Houston itself. Besides paying wages and salaries to a sizeable work force, the founders would eventually plow profits back into the economic growth of the city of Houston through the creation of such entities as M.D. Anderson Hospital.

For everyday consumers, however, the growth of cash-only and self-service grocery stores such as Piggly Wiggly and locally-owned stores such as Leonard Brothers in Fort Worth made the biggest impact on their lives and bank accounts. If a consumer could afford to pay cash and was willing to select their own grocery items they could buy more for less. The operating principle of Leonard Brothers, for example, was “Better a Fast Nickle than a Slow Dime.”  Selling fast and for low prices brought a steady rise in profits and greater access to consumer goods to paying customers.

Meanwhile poorer tenant farmers, almost all sharecroppers, and those in pockets of poverty in urban areas were usually trapped in some equivalent of the crop lien system. They bought on credit, paid high prices, and had a limited choice of consumer goods. In addition they lacked the access to capital available to firms like Anderson, Clayton and Company or Leonard Brothers and could not buy land or start a business. They were stuck in a lower socio-economic class. Increasingly, just as the poll tax, the White primary, and changes in suffrage laws meant some voted and some did not, the advancing economy raised the profit and potential for a better life for some, and it lowered the ability of others to achieve that better life.

In other words, a new class structure emerged in the Progressive Era, and as women getting the vote suggests, so did new gender roles. As far back as antebellum Texas there had been a class system—nothing illustrates that more clearly than the huge gap between wealthy planters and the enslaved. But in some sense the years between 1865 and the late 1880s saw a slight narrowing of class differences. Land was still relatively cheap and open in Texas. Blacks achieved some upward mobility, and their participation in politics suggested an evening of social standing at least to a limited degree. Those things began to change by 1890. As suggested above, for those further up the economic ladder, the Progressive Era brought greater prosperity and higher wages, but for those further down the ladder their relative position declined. Voting suggests the same thing happened to the standing of African Americans in society. By the start of World War I Texas was back to something closer to the antebellum model with extremes of wealth and poverty and legally-enforced differences between Black and White. Of course, there were major differences—especially the emergence of an urban middle class of Whites and Blacks in the years after 1890. Those with steady jobs at Anderson, Clayton and Company and similar-sized firms in a variety of industries, or working in retail, banking, construction, and similar urban-centered businesses rose up the ladder and participated in the consumer economy. The city offered a way out for some—White or Black.

The city, large and small, also provided a setting for emerging gender roles. The leaders of the suffrage movement tended to come from cities, and women who worked outside the home tended to live in cities. Women in sharecropper and tenant families certainly worked exceptionally hard and often in the fields with men, and some women whose families owned larger farms and ranches took on new roles. But cities offered more women as well as men new opportunities in clerical work, banks, retail establishments, grocery stores, and similar businesses. Clubs, advocating the arts, and public service projects also offered women new outlets in cities.

Those service projects taken on by women included raising funds and assembling care packages for soldiers during World War I. Women also assumed some of the jobs held by men before they went off to war. In fact, some women argued that their role during the war justified their voting, and that highlighted the impact of World War I on Texas. It both accelerated long-running trends and brought new conditions. Chief among these new conditions was that booming Texas cities drew African Americans from the countryside, and Blacks also left for equally prosperous cities outside the state. The war also soon sent the price of cotton and wages higher and brought at least temporary prosperity to many. Demand for oil increased as did demand for a host of products produced in war-related industries.

Perhaps of most importance the war contributed to the confluence of extreme racial violence and a thirst for modernization that characterized the entire era. Numerous lynchings of African Americans, often in brutal and ritualistic fashion before large crowds of White onlookers, occurred from the late 1880s to the 1930s, yet those during and immediately after World War I took on a special nature because they often involved African American soldiers and veterans.  African American soldiers reacted vigorously to discrimination by Houston police and citizens in what became known as the Houston Riot of 1917, and in the Longview Race Riot of 1919 African American citizens of Longview reacted to the threat of armed Whites by firing back. In July 1920, two young African American brothers, Herman and Ervin Arthur, were burned to death by a White mob in Paris, Texas, after they shot and killed a White father and son who owned the farm where they worked. There had been a dispute over who owed who money, and both sides were armed. According to Arthur family history, “when the white folks started shooting, Uncle Herman showed them what he had learned in the war.” Herman Arthur was a World War I veteran who knew how to shoot, had served with pride, and had little fear of Whites.

Interestingly that was the last known lynching in Paris, and Houston avoided a repeat of the difficulties of 1917. Perhaps Black resistance sent a message, but it was also true that White leaders did not want the forward-looking communities of Houston and Paris to become centers of race violence. It was bad for business. It did not cast them as modern places.

Racial violence certainly predated American entry into the war and marked the entire Progressive Era, and Texas achieved the dubious distinction of recording the third most lynchings of any state between the 1880s and the 1930s. Lynchings rose sharply during the 1890s and continued into the new century before slowing a bit in the 1920s. Still a particularly gruesome lynching and destruction of the Black part of town by a White mob occurred in the Sherman Riot of 1930. Perhaps the most infamous lynching of the entire period occurred in Waco on May 15, 1916, with the Jesse Washington lynching.  Washington, a young Black man, had confessed to murdering and raping a White woman and was convicted in a trial in which reaching a verdict took only four minutes. As soon as the verdict was determined, a White mob seized Washington, drug him through the street behind a car, and burned and mutilated him in front of a large crowd. Pictures taken at the scene revealed both the brutality of Washington’s death and the cavalier attitude of the White crowd toward the life of another human being. Those pictures and widespread reporting led to a growing nationwide movement against lynching but did little to change things in Texas.  

In the majority of cases, the targets of White lynch mobs were African American men, but in the 1910s violence against ethnic Mexicans spiked along with their numbers. Local law enforcement and the Texas Rangers either permitted this violence or they took part in it. In 1918 at Porvenir in the Big Bend Region, Texas Rangers, aided by local Anglo ranchers and the U.S. Army, took fifteen ethnic Mexican men and boys prisoner, disarmed them, and assassinated them in what came to be called the Porvenir Massacre. This led to the firing of some of the rangers involved, a hearing in the state legislature the next year, and to some mild reforms. No ranger was ever prosecuted. 

So what changed? Why did lynching tail off at the end of the Progressive Era? As noted, White community leaders increasingly viewed lynching as bad for business because it made it more difficult to secure outside investment. Also, the movement of African Americans to other states created labor shortages at crucial times of the agricultural season. One answer was Mexican American labor, and another answer was at least paying lip service to ending racial violence. The Mexican government also widely publicized violence against ethnic Mexicans in Texas. The increased role of women in the public sphere made a difference as well, and some Texas women began an organized campaign to end lynching. Perhaps though the crucial piece of the puzzle was that the rise of the Ku Klux Klan forced leading Progressives to look at the dark underside of their movement and make a choice between modernization and primitivism, between being part of an emerging America and part of a brutal past. 

The Ku Klux Klan first appeared in Texas in the fall of 1920 in Houston at the annual reunion of the United Confederate Veterans and quickly spread through much of the state. While it continued to have ties to the Confederacy and the post-Civil War version of the Klan, the Texas Klan of the 1920s usually marched with the American flag and took as its motto, “100 Percent American.” Its definition of Americanism was White and Protestant, and it targeted Jews, German speakers, African Americans, ethnic Mexicans, and especially Catholics and violators of prohibition. It also cast itself as the defender of White womanhood, much in the tradition of perpetrators of lynching. The Klan often used violent tactics to force others to conform to prohibition, Protestant morality, gender roles that cast men as the defenders of women, and a mix of both pre-Progressive and Progressive norms. Like English-only and segregation, however, the choice for violators of those norms was to conform and reform or get out of town. In 1922 Earle B. Mayfield, a Klan-backed candidate, was elected to the U.S. Senate from Texas, and that signaled the high-water mark of the Klan in Texas. As the violence and notoriety of the Klan increased, leading Progressives such as Martin McNulty Crane of Dallas led organized resistance. In the 1924 Democratic runoff primary for governor, most of these anti-Klan Progressives swallowed hard and backed Miriam Ferguson, the wife of impeached-former-governor Jim Ferguson. The Fergusons opposed strict enforcement of prohibition, appealed to ethnic voters, and spoke out sharply against the Klan. Miriam Ferguson won, and, through her efforts and the growing scandals surrounding the Klan, the influence of the hooded order waned. Her election was a break point and as good a place as any to end the Progressive Era. The necessity of ending Klan influence in Texas called into question the drive for conformity, the wisdom of prohibition, and the acceptance of violence. None of these disappeared, but new circumstances brought new concerns and new points of view that muted the influence of progressivism. Faced with the hard choice of whether a woman who was not a Progressive could and should be governor and the reality that carried to an extreme by the Ku Klux Klan some of the tenants of Progressivism brought more harm than good, the movement fractured. It is no wonder that at the end of the Progressive Era we as well as they were left with questions. See also LATE NINETEENTH-CENTURY TEXAS, TEXAS IN THE 1920S, AFRICAN AMERICANS AND POLITICS, ELECTION LAWS, WOMEN AND POLITICS, MEXICAN REVOLUTION, AGRICULTURE, URBANIZATION, HIGHWAY DEVELOPMENT, AVIATION, OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY.

Charles C. Alexander, Crusade for Conformity: The Ku Klux Klan in Texas, 1920–1930 (Houston: Texas Gulf Coast Historical Association, 1962). Evan Anders, Boss Rule in South Texas: The Progressive Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982). Alwyn Barr, Reconstruction to Reform: Texas Politics, 1876–1906 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971). Carlos Kevin Blanton, The Strange Career of Bilingual Education in Texas, 1836–1981 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004). Patricia Bernstein, The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005). Jessica Brannon-Wranosky, Southern Promise and Necessity: Texas Regional Identity and the National Woman Suffrage Movement, 1868–1920 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Texas, 2010). Jessica Brannon-Wranosky and Bruce Glasrud, eds., Impeached: The Removal of Texas Governor James E. Ferguson, A Centennial Examination (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2017). Norman D. Brown, Hood, Bonnet, and Little Brown Jug; Texas Politics, 1921–1928 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1984). Victoria Buenger and Walter L. Buenger, Texas Merchant: Marvin Leonard & Fort Worth (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1998). Walter L. Buenger, The Path to a Modern South: Northeast Texas Between Reconstruction and the Great Depression (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001). Walter L. Buenger and Joseph A. Pratt, But Also Good Business: Texas Commerce Banks and the Financing of Houston and Texas, 1886–1986 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986). Paul D. Casdorph, Republicans, Negroes, and Progressives in the South, 1912–1916 (University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1981). L. L. Foster, Forgotten Texas Census (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2001). Lewis L. Gould, Progressives and Prohibitionists: Texas Democrats in the Wilson Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1992). James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895–1943 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978). Max H. Jacobs and H. Dick Golding, Houston and Cotton (Houston Cotton Exchange and Board of Trade, 1949). Terry G. Jordan, “A Century and a Half of Ethnic Change in Texas, 1836–1986,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 89 (April 1986). Robert S. Maxwell and Robert D. Baker, Sawdust Empire: The Texas Lumber Industry, 1830–1940 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1983). Bradley Robert Rice, Progressive Cities: The Commission Government Movement in America, 1901–1920 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977). William D. Carrigan, The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836–1916 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004). William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848–1928 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). William R. Childs, The Texas Railroad Commission: Understanding Regulation in America to the Mid-Twentieth Century (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005). Debbie Mauldin Cottrell, Pioneer Woman Educator: The Progressive Spirit of Annie Webb Blanton (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993). Lewis L. Gould, Alexander Watkins Terrell: Civil War Soldier, Texas Lawmaker, American Diplomat (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004). Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jesse Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign Against Lynching (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979). Robert V. Haynes, Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976). Benjamin Heber Johnson, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). Joseph L. Locke, Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1917). Monica Muñoz Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018). Judith N. McArthur, Creating the New Woman: The Rise of Southern Women’s Progressive Culture in Texas, 1893–1918 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998). Judith N. McArthur and Harold L. Smith, Minnie Fisher Cunningham: A Suffragist's Life in Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). Cynthia Orozco, No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs Allowed: The Rise of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement  (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009). Bernadette Pruitt, The Other Great Migration: The Movement of Rural African Americans to Houston, 1900–1941 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2013). Rebecca Sharpless, Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices; Women on Texas Cotton Farms, 1900–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). Tyina Steptoe, Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City (Berkeley: University of California, 2015).  Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Women, Culture, and Community: Religion and Reform in Galveston, 1880–1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Kyle G. Wilkison, Yeomen, Sharecroppers, and Socialists: Plain Folk Protest in Texas, 1870–1914 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008). Patrick G. Williams, Beyond Redemption: Texas Democrats After Reconstruction (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007).

Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Walter L. Buenger, “Progressive Era,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 17, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995
August 28, 2020