Progressive Movement


The Progressive movement in Virginia was a series of efforts by early-twentieth-century residents to correct what they perceived as problems or deficiencies in government, business, and society. Their work was part of a national reform movement that existed from late in the 1890s until the United States entered World War I in 1917. Progressive reform in Virginia had many parallels with its national counterpart, but like the rest of the movement’s southern manifestation, it also varied from it in important ways. Nationally, Progressives sought to expand democracy, aid victims of industrialization, bring order and efficiency to government and business, and impose morality. State reformers, by contrast, showed little interest in social uplift or racial justice, or in increasing democracy or furthering workers’ rights. Instead, they focused on adjusting government and society in ways that both safeguarded the existing social and racial hierarchy and provided order, stability, and economic progress. In Virginia, the movement’s participants were predominately urban white professionals, businessmen, educators, church leaders, and politicians; or their wives and daughters. Although the state’s reformers had a variety of aims, they worked primarily on restructuring the electorate; improving public education; modifying cities in ways that made them more healthful, efficient, and orderly; upgrading roads; and enacting prohibition of alcohol. They achieved these and other reforms by successfully lobbying government officials for new laws, oversight agencies, and funding measures. While Virginia’s Progressives more often than not worked together on their various causes, like reformers elsewhere in the nation, they also occasionally disagreed about the practicality of specific solutions. Those being reformed—typically poor white and African American residents—opposed many of the movement’s efforts but lacked the political power to block them.

1902 Constitution

No White Man to Lose His Vote in Virginia.

The majority of Virginia’s Progressive reforms did not begin until the state’s new constitution went into effect in 1902. It replaced Virginia’s 1869 Reconstruction-era constitution, which had a universal male suffrage clause, with a constitution that disenfranchised thousands of poor whites and nearly eliminated the state’s African American electorate. The constitution’s main purpose was to end threats to all-white Democratic Party rule posed by the biracial Readjuster, Populist, and Republican parties. It mirrored new state constitutions ratified elsewhere in the South about the same time, all of which also used elaborate voting regulations to subvert the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1870) by disenfranchising blacks and poor whites. In 1900, the electorate endorsed holding a convention to draft the new constitution, but in 1902, after the delegates had completed it, the convention simply declared the constitution in effect rather than risk voters rejecting it. Subsequent lawsuits that either challenged the legality of imposing the constitution or disputed its new voter qualifications were turned down by state and federal courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States. Progressive reformers were some of the constitution’s most ardent supporters and heralded it as a necessary measure to end voting fraud and solidify white supremacy.

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.


Two Schoolchildren

Virginia’s Progressives focused much of their work on improving the state’s dismal public education system. Like the rest of the South, Virginia devoted little funding or attention to its public schools, which, according to reformers, threatened to leave the state with an uneducated electorate and impede economic development. The problems Progressives sought to remedy were many. Virginia spent only about a quarter of the national average on public education and had no mandatory attendance law, which meant in 1900 only about half of its potential grade-school students were enrolled. Of those, only about six in ten attended school on a regular basis during the traditional six-month school term. Teacher salaries had increased little since early in the 1870s, and although illiteracy rates had decreased after the state had created its first public school system in 1870 (as mandated by the 1869 constitution), in 1900 almost a quarter of its population could neither read nor write. In rural areas, one-room schoolhouses lacking adequate sanitation were common, as were numerous students who suffered from a debilitating combination of hookworm infection and malnutrition. Access to four-year high schools was severely limited, leaving most students in the state with only a grade school education.

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.

Andrew J. Montague

This outpouring of public support led the Virginia General Assembly in 1906 to double the state’s education budget and pass the Mann High School Bill, which obligated the state to pay matching funds to any district that built a high school. Over the next four years, localities constructed 285 new high schools. Over the same period, the General Assembly voted to increase teacher pay, pass a teacher certification law, build three new female teacher colleges, lengthen the school term, improve sanitation at rural schools, give localities the option of implementing compulsory attendance laws, and increase funding for state universities. In the years that followed, the newly created State Board of Health worked with the Rockefeller Foundation to eliminate hookworm in Virginia’s public school students.

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.

Civic Improvement

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.

Votes for Women ... "No Taxation Without Representation"

Middle- and upper-class women, especially those with backgrounds in women’s clubs, church groups, or charity organizations, were behind many of the reform efforts. They conducted most of their work through women’s civic improvement associations, working primarily out of public view to publicize problems and lobby businessmen, professionals, and politicians to provide solutions. Like Progressive women nationwide, they believed such work was an extension of their domestic responsibility to home and family. Some of Virginia’s reform-minded women also mirrored their southern counterparts by approaching any issue with a commitment to a feminine ideal that generally excluded any public political agitation. In contrast, others like Lila Meade Valentine, Adèle Clark, Ellen Glasgow, and Mary Johnston, all promoted woman suffrage, forming the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia in 1909, and widely lobbying the General Assembly. Mary-Cooke Branch Munford also worked with the General Assembly to try to establish a Women Co-Ordinate College with the University of Virginia in the mid-1910s.

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.

Good Roads

Claude A. Swanson

By 1900, Virginia’s rural roads, like those throughout the rest of the South, had changed little over the preceding hundred years. Most were little more than dirt paths, which quickly turned into impassable mud bogs after a storm. In towns and cities, which generally had at least a few hard-surface roads, the situation was only slightly better. Until the state’s 1902 constitution went into effect, the upkeep of Virginia’s roads was under local control, with each city, town, or county responsible for the maintenance of thoroughfares in its district. The results were disastrous, making ground travel difficult under the best circumstances and nearly impossible in inclement weather.

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.

Bishop James Cannon

In 1901, Evangelical ministers established a Virginia branch of the Anti-Saloon League to lobby for additional restriction of alcohol. Led by Methodist minister James Cannon Jr., the Anti-Saloon League of Virginia (ASLV) was instrumental in convincing the General Assembly to pass the 1903 Mann Bill, which eliminated the sale of alcohol in areas without police protection, required judges to approve liquor licenses, and imposed heavy taxes on rural saloons. The following year the General Assembly ordered all saloons closed on Sundays. Additional restrictions imposed in 1908 further reduced rural access to alcohol, and by 1910, the vast majority of Virginia’s 101 counties and 141 of its rural towns had voted to impose Prohibition. Overall, the ASLV campaign reduced the number of venues serving alcohol from roughly 3,000 in 1901 to about 750 in 1910.

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.

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Following the lead of the state's women, Governor Andrew Jackson Montague helps found the Cooperative Education Association.
During the Progressive era, strict voter qualification regulations go into effect in Virginia, including a poll tax and literacy test.
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.
The 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.
Progressive lobbying leads the General Assembly to create the State Highway Commission to develop and maintain roads throughout the state.
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.
The Anti-Saloon League of Virginia's James Cannon Jr. helps draft legislation to close notoriously unruly rural saloons.
By this year, the vast majority of Virginia's 101 counties and 141 of its rural towns have voted to impose Prohibition.
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.
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.
Virginia spends only about half the national average on public education.
  • Hoffman, Steven J. “Progressive Public Health Administration in the Jim Crow South: A Case Study of Richmond, Virginia, 1907–1920.” Journal of Social History 35, no. 1 (2001, Autumn): 175–194.
  • Larson, William. Montague of Virginia: The Making of a Southern Progressive. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
  • Lindgren, James M. “‘Virginia Needs Living Heroes’: Historic Preservation in the Progressive Era.” Public Historian 13, no. 1 (1991, Winter): 9–24.
  • Link, William A. A Hard Country and a Lonely Place: Schooling, Society, and Reform in Rural Virginia, 1870–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
  • Moger, Allen W. Virginia: Bourbonism to Byrd, 1870–1925. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968.
  • Pulley, Raymond H. Old Virginia Restored: An Interpretation of the Progressive Impulse, 1870–1930. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968.
APA Citation:
Dotson, Rand. Progressive Movement. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/progressive-movement.
MLA Citation:
Dotson, Rand. "Progressive Movement" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2023, March 25
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