Most state governments, including Georgia's, generated Progressive reforms that sometimes coincided with, but sometimes differed from, those enacted at the federal level.
Major areas of economic, social, and moral reform among southern states included prohibition, woman suffrage, the regulation of child labor, campaigns to abolish the convict lease system and reform the penal system, and
Progressives included not only political leaders—governors, legislators, and mayors—but also academics, educators, businessmen, large farmers, and both women and black activists. All of these groups shared a basic belief in "energetic government"; they recognized both the responsibility and the ability of government, at federal, state, and local levels, to solve the many social, economic, and political problems that faced the rapidly modernizing nation at the turn of the century.
While Progressives could be either Republicans or Democrats in other parts of the country, it was the Progressive branch of the Democratic Party that imposed reform through new legislation in Georgia. While several governors during that era, from William J. Northen (1890-94) through Joseph M. Terrell (1902-7), advocated reforms of certain types, the movement remained a rather disparate effort until the governorship of Hoke Smith (1907-9, 1911), who offered the strong leadership to implement a full-fledged Progressive agenda and who did so with the endorsement of Thomas E. Watson, the former Populist leader and one of the strongest forces for reform in the state.
After 1900 the Democratic Party of Georgia turned away from the radicalism of the Populist Party. As the now-dominant political organization in the state, the Democratic Party reflected the interests of an expanding urban middle class, a growing number of professionals in the state's cities,
Progressive urban reformers in cities like Atlanta and Augusta turned to the principles of business efficiency as a good guide for government. They improved sewer lines and streets, added parks, and undertook city beautification projects. The goal was to create more livable cities, though not for all. There was little discussion, at first, of working conditions, hours, or wages for mill, factory, and lumber workers or for domestic servants and the poor.
Smith defeated Clark Howell, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, in a contentious primary, in which racially heated rhetoric contributed in part to the Atlanta race riot that took place in September 1906. Smith coasted to victory in the general election, and once in office in early 1907, moved quickly on his
Farm and labor interests continued to call for penal reform, and in 1908 the General Assembly, with Smith's strong backing, finally enacted a law prohibiting the convict lease system. A state farm was established and county detention camps provided for felons (about 90 percent of whom were black), but otherwise not much else changed. In the absence of prison facilities, shackles, chains, abusive treatment (of men, women, and children), and labor on roads and highways were the prisoner's lot.
One issue that
By 1907, 125 of the state's 146 counties had voted to become dry. That same year the General Assembly passed a statewide prohibition law, the first in the South, that made the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages a crime. Over the next several years prohibition forces wrangled over the exceptions in the legislation, which permitted "near beer," the storage of alcohol in lockers in private clubs, and the importation of alcohol from outside the state. In 1916 the legislature made possession of alcohol a crime. Amended many times, Georgia's law became the strictest in the nation. Prohibition became national law when the states ratified the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. The law took effect the following year.
In the late
In addition to state support, many of these education reforms were funded by northern philanthropic efforts, such as the Southern Education Board, established in 1901, and the General Education Board, a foundation sponsored by philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, who gave more than $53 million from 1902 to 1909 to study, publicize, and campaign for improved conditions in public education throughout the South. While Georgia still lagged far behind the rest of the nation, and even much of the South at the end of the Progressive Era, statistics from the early twentieth century indicate substantial improvement. In 1900 the average length of the school term was 112 days; in 1920, it had expanded to 145 days. Over the same period, per pupil expenditures in Georgia rose from 89 cents in 1900 to $3.13 in 1920; white teachers' salaries also increased substantially. Between 1912 and 1919 new legislation and amendments to the state constitution incorporated high schools into the public educational system and required that state and local funding
Few in-state efforts incorporated black schools into their reforms, though the northern philanthropic movements often made industrial education for African Americans a priority. Rockefeller's General Education Board and the John F. Slater Fund provided considerable funding of county training programs for black teachers of industrial arts. Anna T. Jeanes, a Quaker from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, gave more than $1 million to provide "rudimentary" education for rural southern blacks in 1907, and a year later she established the Jeanes Fund to train black teachers, again with industrial education as the primary focus. The program in Georgia began with six Jeanes teachers and eventually grew to fifty-three by 1939. Beginning in 1912, Julius Rosenwald gave money for the construction of more than 5,300 school buildings for black children in the rural areas throughout the South, of which 242 were located in Georgia.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Georgia during the Progressive Era was the health of its people. Some of the most serious problems were caused by living conditions. Almost all of the state's rural homes, and many of those in its cities, lacked any means of sanitary sewage. Impure food, ignorance of the contagious and infectious nature of illnesses, and inadequate medical assistance added to public health risks. Pellagra was a particularly devastating disease caused by poor diet
An equally alarming problem, and one common to the state since its founding, was malaria, a mosquito-born disease that can cause fever, chills, exhaustion, and sometimes death. In 1900 Georgia ranked fourth nationally in the number of malaria deaths. Georgians were also plagued by smallpox, typhoid fever, venereal disease, and tuberculosis.
Solving these problems in the long term would involve a combination of education, medical science, government support, and access to health care. Georgia's first serious step was taken in 1903 when the General Assembly created a new state Board of Health. (The first board of health existed from 1875 to 1900.) Located in the basement of the state capitol building, and with a meager annual budget of $3,000, of which $2,000 was marked for the secretary's (a qualified physician) salary, the health board soon began an anti-rabies project and embarked on a program of publicizing information about infectious and contagious diseases. In 1905 it developed a bacteriological lab in the basement of the capitol, where it manufactured and distributed typhoid vaccines and diphtheria antitoxins. The health board also joined forces with other southern states and, later, with the 1909 Rockefeller Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease in the successful effort to eradicate hookworm.
At first, many doctors and public officials were suspicious of the new field of "public health," while the legislature scrimped in allocating funding. Progress was by steps, however, and usually on the heels of an epidemic that underlined the importance of environment and hygiene. In 1908 the General Assembly authorized $25,000 for the state's most ambitious health project yet, a public sanitarium for the treatment of tuberculosis in Banks County. In 1914 the General Assembly provided for a board of health in every Georgia county. Though at first few counties bothered to participate, by 1922 most counties had organized into a statewide public health network. The 1914 law also required the state to maintain vital records on the incidence of diseases and deaths—a critical step in identifying public health threats.
As important as these first steps were, the public's needs vastly overshadowed the state's capacities. Not until the 1930s and after, when federal programs allocated funds and program expertise to the state, did Georgia engage, and finally begin to solve, its most serious health problems.
Women's Activism and Suffrage Campaign
One of the more distinguishing features of the
A number of women were active on several fronts, even when those causes may have seemed contradictory in ideological terms. Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas of Augusta, for example, held leadership positions in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Augusta, and was president of the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association. She crusaded for a state industrial school for girls and for more humane treatment of female prisoners in the state's jails. Yet she was also a leading proponent of more conservative "Lost Cause" efforts to commemorate the Confederacy and Confederate soldiers. Rebecca Latimer Felton championed prohibition and woman suffrage and attacked the convict lease system, yet she defended cotton mill owners against charges of child labor abuses and defended not only black disfranchisement but lynching as well.
Twilight of Reform
After being defeated by Joseph M. Brown in the 1908 governor's race (Tom Watson had switched his allegiance to Brown), Hoke Smith regained office in the 1910 election. In his second term Governor Smith joined forces with Progressive interest groups to create a state Board of Education. High
Smith's second term lasted only a year (he moved to the U.S. Senate in 1911), and his departure from the governor's office signaled a dampening in sentiment for reform, as no other governor exhibited the same Progressive spirit. Nevertheless, other reforms were generated by the state legislature. In 1914 the General Assembly, repealing a weak 1906 child labor law, enacted new provisions that set fourteen as the minimum age of employment (although there were exceptions). Lacking any provision for inspection or enforcement, however, the law languished on the books. By 1920 Georgia led the nation in the number of employed children aged ten to fifteen. In 1916 the legislature passed a compulsory school attendance law, but enforcement was almost impossible because of the number of exceptions granted. A more effective
In 1916 the federal government provided a matching grants program for highway construction. This was a popular program in Georgia that appealed to business owners, farmers, railroad companies, and shippers. The General Assembly provided for a highway commission to coordinate state efforts. The availability of state prisoners offered a cheap and ready source of labor.
The U.S. entry in World War I (1917-18) diverted attention and legislative energies from the Progressive agenda. Woman suffrage—spurred in part by women's leadership efforts in the peace movement to keep the United States out of the war prior to 1917, and their home front mobilization efforts during the war—is the only major reform achieved after the war's end.
The Legacy of Reform
Because it facilitated economic growth, Georgia's Progressive movement enjoyed the support of businesses, large land owners, and urban interests.
It was out of step with the nation (though not the South) in its neglect of some of the poorest segments of society and its rejection of woman suffrage. Sharecroppers lost ground during the Progressive Era despite the fact that farmers' initiatives before 1900 had set the stage for what came later. The disfranchisement of blacks not only excluded 46 percent of the state's population from the political system but also condemned many to a segregated underclass. The absence of a two-party system (distinctive to the South) probably diminished the depth and longevity of reform in the state.
Reforms were expensive and depended for their success upon the capacities of government. When Progressivism arrived in Georgia, the state was still in recovery from the human and economic disaster of the Civil War (1861-65). Further, the broadly supported priority of maximizing the power of county units while minimizing government expenses meant that the ad valorem or general property assessment tax (established in the Constitution of 1877), which kept taxes low, was the state's main generator of revenue. Not until the existence of a program of general taxation (income, gasoline, automobile registration, and the sales tax that began in 1951), and an economy and population to support it could more be done. Progressive-era reform in Georgia was a modest but important first step in that direction.
Progressivism was the first of several major reform movements, and it shared with those later efforts an agenda of social justice, expanded economic opportunity, efficiency in government, and moral reform. Unlike the New Deal of the 1930s and the "Great Society" of the mid-1960s, which were nationwide programs instituted by single presidential administrations (Franklin D. Roosevelt's and Lyndon B. Johnson's respectively), and enacted solely by federal legislation, Progressivism was far more broad-based and less centralized or limited to governmental initiative. The civil rights movement was equally broad-based in the grassroots makeup of its proponents but was more of a single-issue, regionally based movement and was characterized far more by protest and by massive resistance and violent response to that protest. The goals of the civil rights movement were ultimately implemented by congressional legislation but carried out by the initiatives of the federal court judicial system. Much of the movement's purpose was to undo the restrictions of segregation and disfranchisement that had been imposed on southern African Americans that had once been considered Progressive reforms.
Ultimately, Progressivism's greatest legacy for Georgians and all Americans—and a central facet of all subsequent reform movements—lay in its underlying assumption that government at all levels could and should take responsibility for guarding the interests and the welfare of certain elements of society and should utilize the powers of legislation and regulation in so doing.
Hugh C. Bailey, Liberalism in the New South: Southern Social Reformers and the Progressive Movement (Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1969).
Dewey W. Grantham, Hoke Smith and the Politics of the New South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967).
Dewey W. Grantham, Southern Progressivism: The Reconciliation of Progress and Tradition (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983).
William F. Holmes, "Populism and Progressivism, 1890-1920," in A History of Georgia, ed. Kenneth Coleman, 2d ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991).
Jack Temple Kirby, Darkness at the Dawning: Race and Reform in the Progressive South (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1972).
William A. Link, The Paradox of Southern Progressivism, 1880-1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).
William A. Link, ed., "The Rebuilding of Old Commonwealths": and Other Documents of Social Reform in the Progressive Era South (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1996).
Jamil S. Zainaldin, Georgia Humanities Council
John C. Inscoe, University of Georgia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.