To disenfranchise Virginia's black voters without violating the Fifteenth Amendment, which barred states from denying the vote to any male based on race, the constitution used non-race-specific means to restrict the electorate. Initially, it offered voting rights only to veterans of the American Civil War (1861–1865) and their sons, to those who had paid a dollar or more in property taxes, and to those who could verbally explain portions of the new constitution. In 1904, even stricter regulations went into effect, including a poll tax and literacy test. The requirements eliminated more than half of the state's electorate and cut the number of black voters from about 147,000 in 1901 to fewer than 10,000 in 1905. By undemocratically removing African Americans and poor whites from the political process, the constitution ensured one-party dominance by Virginia's Democrats for the next sixty years. It also allowed the state's Progressives to conduct reform work without significant political opposition.
In addition to the new voting requirements, the constitution included several measures Progressives had sought, including creation of the State Corporation Commission, authorization of party primaries for United States Senate candidates, replacement of county courts with a circuit court system, and approval of increased funding for schools, prisons, roads, and public welfare. The State Corporation Commission's main responsibility was regulating railroads, which eventually resulted in fairer rates, increased railroad property taxes, and policies that made railroads responsible for employees' injuries.
Women, especially those living in urban areas, were among the first to call for improvements to Virginia's educational system. In 1900, several of them founded the Richmond Education Association with the goal of raising teacher salaries, improving school facilities, and increasing the city's education budget. Led by clubwomen Lila Meade Valentine and Mary-Cooke Branch Munford, the association eventually convinced Richmond to devote funds for kindergartens, vocational training, and a new four-year high school. In 1904, following the lead of the state's women, Virginia governor Andrew Jackson Montague, who campaigned on a proeducation platform, helped found the Cooperative Education Association (CEA). The group, which included dozens of the state's most respected education advocates, sought dramatic improvements in the public school system, including a nine-month school term, a high school within proximity to every student, improved teacher training, increased vocational instruction, and better library access. In May 1905, one hundred CEA representatives organized meetings in every county in the state to publicize the organization's goals. In the immediate aftermath, fifty local associations emerged to advocate for education improvements in their districts. A year later, 242 more proeducation groups had appeared.
Despite these and other efforts, by 1920 Virginia was spending only about half the national average on public education. In addition, African Americans reaped few benefits from the state's education reforms. Virginia legally segregated its public schools from their inception in 1870, and it reiterated that position in its 1902 constitution. White officials controlled budgets for all public schools, and most cared little about funding African American education. As a result, white schools generally received about four times the funding allocated their black counterparts. One consequence was that, by 1918, there were only four black high schools in the entire state.
On the local level, Progressives were most active in urban Virginia, where they instigated a variety of reforms designed to foster greater stability, order, and economic development. The state's cities, like those throughout much of the South, suffered from a multiplicity of social and infrastructure problems that made many of them seem more like overgrown country towns than urban areas. Virginia's urban Progressives, like their southern counterparts, sought ways to foster modernization and social harmony through increased government responsibility and oversight. Their goals were numerous but generally included sanitation improvements; segregation ordinances; health and food regulations; the construction of parks, playgrounds, and libraries; urban planning; and professional city management.
Progressives throughout urban Virginia focused initially on health reforms that more often than not included strengthening local boards of health, improving hospital facilities, passing stringent food and dairy inspection laws, enforcing new health and sanitation codes, improving sewer systems, banning livestock in towns and cities, and closing "red light" prostitution districts. In a move that they believed would mitigate racial turmoil, they pushed successfully for legalized segregation of public accommodations and transportation. They also sought to promote social harmony through the creation of public parks and outdoor recreation programs. Many pushed for management of cities by professionally trained experts and for abolition of ward voting in favor of citywide elections. Especially in the state's newer metropolitan areas, where unregulated growth had produced a variety of problems, civic betterment groups hired urban planners to restructure their cities in ways that made them more functional and aesthetically pleasing. On the state level, Progressives lobbied successfully for a variety of measures to improve the general welfare of Virginia's residents, including the creation of the State Board of Health and State Board of Corrections and Charities, along with passage of child labor laws.
Progressives, many of whom were members of the Virginia Good Roads Association, argued that upgrading roads would not only make travel more efficient for residents, but would also foster economic development and increase school attendance. In 1906, their lobbying efforts, which had the support of Montague and his successor as governor, Claude A. Swanson, led the General Assembly to create the State Highway Commission to develop and maintain roads throughout the state. It also allocated state funds for construction and maintenance of roads and bridges. In an act lobbied for by Progressives, the assembly also moved to replace Virginia's brutal convict lease system with prison labor devoted to roadwork. In 1908, the state began offering matching funds for road construction to every county in the state. Subsequent funding and prison labor measures over the following decade led to dramatic improvements in the state's road network and to more than forty-five hundred miles of new roads and hundreds of new bridges.
The campaign to outlaw the sale of alcohol in Virginia was the most controversial and divisive reform of the Progressive era. Like Prohibition efforts elsewhere in the nation, the movement deeply divided the state's reformers. Many, especially those living in cities, opposed Prohibition, while those living in the countryside or in small towns generally favored it. Evangelical Christians were strong advocates of outlawing access to alcohol, while businessmen more often than not opposed such regulation on the grounds that it would retard economic development. Urban workers, poor whites, and African Americans also generally opposed Prohibition. Many of them, however, lost the right to vote on the issue after Virginia's 1902 constitution went into effect. The state's women, who did not gain access to the ballot until 1920, rarely if ever patronized saloons and typically favored Prohibition. Along with clergymen, they were some of the most active participants in the campaign against alcohol, arguing that saloons corrupted boys, led to spousal abuse, and threatened the family.
Although the Prohibition issue did not gain widespread interest in Virginia until early in the 1900s, the campaign for it began in the 1880s, when churchwomen organized local chapters of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Their efforts, and the work of Evangelical males, led the General Assembly in 1886 to endorse a "local option" law, which gave local governments the option of holding elections on Prohibition in their jurisdiction. As a result, by 1900, much of rural and small town Virginia had already voted to outlaw alcohol sales.
By the end of 1913, the efforts of the ASLV and WCTU had led to Prohibition in 95 percent of the state, leaving only Virginia's cities as places where access to alcohol was legal. Most urban residents had time after time voted against Prohibition in local option elections. Getting the measure on a statewide ballot, therefore, became the sole focus of those aiming to restrict alcohol sales in the entire state. The ASLV and WCTU campaigned hard for such a vote, and although resistance to the measure persisted in cities, in 1913 the General Assembly approved an "enabling bill," which sent the issue to a statewide vote on September 22, 1914. About two-thirds of voters approved the measure, and on November 1, 1916, statewide Prohibition went into effect.
The Progressive movement in Virginia all but disappeared when the nation entered World War I in 1917. By then, however, the reform efforts of its members had led to a dramatic expansion of government responsibility on both the state and local level. The reforms mainly adjusted Virginia in ways that maintained existing social and racial hierarchies while promoting order, stability, healthfulness, and efficiency to foster economic progress.
1886 - The General Assembly endorses a "local option" law, which gives local governments the option of holding elections on Prohibition in their jurisdiction. By 1900, much of rural and small town Virginia will have already voted to outlaw alcohol sales.
1890s - The Progressive movement in Virginia begins when residents seek to correct problems in government, business, and society. Virginia reformers focus on adjusting government and society in ways that both safeguard the existing social and racial hierarchy and provide order, stability, and economic progress.
1900 - Lila Meade Valentine, appalled by the inequities of Virginia's education system, which make it difficult for poor, African American, and female children to receive high quality instruction, forms the Richmond Education Association along with several other activists, including Mary-Cooke Branch Munford.
1901 - The Anti-Saloon League of Virginia, a group that will lead the movement bringing prohibition to the state, is established.
July 10, 1902 - Virginia's Constitution of 1902 becomes law, disfranchising thousands of poor whites and nearly eliminating the state's African American electorate. It replaces Virginia's 1869 Reconstruction-era constitution, which had a universal male suffrage clause. The new constitution also creates the State Corporation Commission to regulate the railroads.
1903 - The Anti-Saloon League of Virginia is instrumental in convincing the General Assembly to pass the 1903 Mann Bill, which eliminates the sale of alcohol in areas without police protection, requires judges to approve liquor licenses, and imposes heavy taxes on rural saloons.
1904 - During the Progressive era, strict voter qualification regulations go into effect in Virginia, including a poll tax and literacy test.
1904 - Following the lead of the state's women, Virginia governor Andrew Jackson Montague helps found the Cooperative Education Association.
1905 - During the Progressive era, restrictive voter requirements eliminate more than half of Virginia's electorate and cut the number of black voters from about 147,000 (in 1901) to fewer than 10,000.
May 1905 - One hundred Cooperative Education Association representatives organize meetings in every county in Virginia to publicize the organization's goals of public school reform. In the immediate aftermath of the "May Campaign," fifty local associations emerge to advocate for education improvements in their districts.
1906 - The Virginia General Assembly doubles the state's education budget and passes the Mann High School bill, which obligates the state to pay matching funds to any district that builds a high school. Over the next four years, localities will construct 285 new high schools.
1906 - Progressive lobbying leads the General Assembly to create the State Highway Commission to develop and maintain roads throughout the state.
1908 - The Anti-Saloon League of Virginia's James Cannon Jr. helps draft legislation to close notoriously unruly rural saloons.
1908 - The state begins offering matching funds for road construction to every county in Virginia. Subsequent funding and prison labor during the following decade will lead to dramatic improvements in the state's road network and to more than 4,500 miles of new roads and hundreds of new bridges.
1910 - By this year, the vast majority of Virginia's 101 counties and 141 of its rural towns have voted to impose Prohibition.
1912 - The Anti-Saloon League of Virginia demands passage of an enabling act to allow a state prohibition referendum.
September 22, 1914 - Virginians endorse an act that makes a statewide referendum on alcohol law, an act that the Anti-Saloon League of Virginia has been pushing for the past several years.
November 1, 1916 - Statewide Prohibition in Virginia goes into effect.
1918 - During the Progressive era, African Americans reap few benefits from Virginia's education reforms. By this year, there are only four black high schools in Virginia.
1920 - Virginia spends only about half the national average on public education.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Dotson, R. Progressive Movement in Virginia. (2012, September 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Progressive_Movement.
- MLA Citation:
Dotson, Rand. "Progressive Movement in Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 19 Sep. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 7, 2008 | Last modified: September 19, 2012
Contributed by Rand Dotson, who is senior acquisitions editor at Louisiana State University Press and the author of Roanoke, Virginia, 1882–1912: Magic City of the New South (2007).