In response to numerous social, political, and economic developments at the end of the nineteenth century, Progressivism in Alabama arose from multiple motivations and created a variety of reforms. More an era than a unified movement, Progressivism was based on the belief that government could be mobilized to enact social change. Historians differ on the exact beginning and end of the era, but the majority focus on the first two decades of the twentieth century as the most significant period.

Child Laborers at Avondale Mills, 1910 Progressives sought to address a variety of persistent socioeconomic problems, including women’s suffrage, alcohol abuse, child labor, convict leasing, and public health. On some matters, urban and rural elites worked together to protect their respective spheres of power. On others, different factions were at odds, slowing both the pace of certain reforms and the enforcement of others. As coalitions alternately formed and fractured, a few realities remained: agricultural and industrial elites who formed the “Black Belt-Big Mule Coalition” held the most economic and political power while poor farmers and industrial laborers, both black and white, struggled to improve their lives without much hope.

Indeed, few African Americans were involved in the Progressive movement as leaders because of Alabama’s strict and rigorously enforced segregationist policies and culture. Some black Alabamians joined the emerging National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but the group’s impact in Alabama was decades away. And most African American women who pondered female suffrage understood that if black men were unable to vote, they were unlikely to do so either.

Votes for Women Progressives were typically white, middle or upper class, and educated, but the various groups devoted to reform rarely agreed completely about what problems needed to be fixed, how to fix them, and why they needed to be fixed. Baptist preachers and bootleggers agreed, for example, that eliminating legal liquor from society was an important goal, but they were motivated by starkly different reasons. Progressives did believe in the power of organizations, with groups as disparate as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Safe and Sane Business Men’s League, the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association, and the Alabama Illiteracy Commission coalescing to lobby for and enact reforms, even if they sometimes, ironically, preserved the status quo.


By the end of the nineteenth century, the Populist movement had gained traction in Alabama, and perhaps as many as 100,000 African American Alabamians had registered to vote. The Big Mules and Black Belt planters saw these developments as threats to their power. As was typical of Alabama politics, their first act in re-establishing control was directed at the voting rights of African Americans and poor whites. In 1901, political powers in the state called a constitutional convention and assembled in Montgomery to write a new state constitution that disenfranchised black voters and removed poor whites from the political process as well. These elites further entrenched their power by instituting home rule, which prevented localities from enacting their own laws without the approval of the legislature or a statewide vote.

Industrialists and planters agreed on disfranchisement, but they disagreed about what to do with railroads, one of the most powerful interest groups in the state. The three-person Railroad Commission, created in 1881, always featured a majority of pro-railroad members who prevented meaningful regulation. Railroad interests were notorious for charging high freight rates and bribing legislators, and popular opposition to the practice helped Avondale Mills owner and railroad critic Braxton Bragg Comer win the 1906 gubernatorial campaign. Many Progressives in business sought lower rates largely because competitors in nearby states profited from significantly lower transportation costs. By the end of his term, Comer achieved a modest reduction in rates, but many of his other reforms were set aside by state courts, minimally enforced, or stonewalled by the long reach of the railroads.

Reforming Convict Leasing and Child Labor

Forced Prisoner Labor in Birmingham Progressives sought other business and industry reforms, including ending the brutal practice of convict leasing and modifying child labor laws. State and county prisoners, overwhelmingly black, were leased to industrial, mining, and rail operations in return for fees paid to the state government. Convict laborers worked in dangerous conditions little better than slavery, but supporters claimed that increased corporate profits and revenue for state government and reduced prison housing costs justified the arrangement. Progressive ministers and journalists sought to abolish the system on religious or moral grounds but created little momentum until more and more white prisoners began coming into the system. Even then, many politicians and businessmen argued that leasing was better than building new prisons. In 1928, Alabama became the last state to end convict leasing, with many in the legislature and business community still pushing to continue the practice.

Business leaders who were unwilling to stop convict leasing were equally reluctant to end child labor. Alabamians were raised to believe that children needed to help out on the farm and that formal education paled in comparison to learning the practical aspects of working a farm. When industry expanded to the South after the Civil War, some impoverished parents sent their children to work in the mills. Business owners were quick to hire them, viewing children as cheap, compliant workers whose small size was ideal for cramped industrial working conditions. Alabama passed a law in 1887 restricting industrial work to those over 14 but reversed course by 1894, as expanding textile and other manufacturing interests increased their need for cheap labor.

Accounts of long working hours and horrible injuries spurred interest in reform. Women’s clubs, labor unions, clergy, and Progressive reformers, including Episcopal priest Edgar Gardner Murphy, protested child labor and formed groups such as the Alabama Child Labor Committee. The legislature strengthened child labor laws four times between 1903 and 1919, but a 1920 child welfare survey still found many Alabama children under the age of 17 working in factories. And enforcement of regulations was sporadic and lax because many Alabamians still needed their children to work to make ends meet.

Education Reform

Progressives had another approach to limiting child labor: improving Alabama’s educational system. Collectively, Alabamians ranked near the bottom of literacy rankings. Compounding the poorly performing schools was the sharply segregated public school system. In every objective and subjective category, separate schools were unequal, with drastic disparities in funding, facilities, resources, supplies, and teacher pay between white and black schools. Progressives, however, made no serious effort to topple segregation and create a unified, properly funded school system.

Nevertheless, reformers pushed the Alabama state government to require a high school in each county and provide more funding, although still below that of neighboring states. A compulsory attendance law in 1915 mandated schooling for ages eight to 15 and lengthened the annual school year, but enforcement was lax. The state’s literacy levels were so low that a significant number of recruits could not pass the basic requirements for World War I service. Other reforms in the 1920s reorganized the state educational infrastructure, set minimum standards, and increased teacher pay. But continued public opposition and political ill will toward tax increases and persistent institutional racism hampered most efforts to reform and improve education.

Public Health

Bryce Hospital If Progressives had difficulties improving state schools, they had an even greater challenge in addressing public health matters. The state’s hot and humid climate, low vaccination rates, and indifferent state government meant frequent outbreaks of small pox, yellow fever, malaria, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Hookworm, pellagra, and other chronic conditions connected to poverty, malnutrition, and lack of access to basic treatment also weakened many Alabamians. Physicians worked hard to assist their patients, but limited rural transportation and communication, poor housing and sanitation, inadequate nutrition, and widespread belief in folk remedies made their challenge all the more daunting. Alabamians had little access to hospital care in the early twentieth century, and mothers generally gave birth at home. As the Progressive era closed, Gov. Thomas Kilby pushed increased expenditures for public health and increased funds for Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County.

Some physicians embraced more a disturbing practice to improve public health, pushing for and employing eugenics, or “racial hygiene,” as a way to control the population of the state. This meant forcibly sterilizing “undesirable” groups, including African Americans, criminals, the mentally and developmentally disabled, and poor women to prevent them from reproducing. Though the legislature later voted down attempts for widespread state-sponsored sterilization, some private physicians continued the practice at rates that may never be truly known.

Prohibition and Women’s Suffrage

No reform impulse in the era matched the intensity brought by the supporters and detractors of both Prohibition and women’s suffrage. Both efforts were led mostly by women’s groups, but they attracted different factions within the state. Women supporting Prohibition organized in various temperance or religious groups, but they were joined by Progressive men of many types, including law enforcement, preachers and lay leaders, and industrial employers, all of whom sought to remove alcohol from society on both secular and religious grounds. Dry forces created so much momentum that by 1908, two-thirds of the state’s 67 counties had banned liquor. Not content, Prohibitionists sought a statewide law to make Alabama dry and even considered amending the state constitution.

Prohibition Gov. Comer took no position on Prohibition, but as local option laws were approved across the state in 1907 and legislative support for a statewide law gained traction, he became a convert to the cause. But while legislators had to answer to Prohibition interest groups like the Anti-Saloon League, voters did not. The state House and Senate approved Prohibition by a large margin and sent a constitutional amendment to Alabama voters, who summarily defeated it, revealing just one of the many of the conundrums of Progressivism. Comer himself is a textbook example of the inconsistencies of the times. He worked feverishly to reform railroads, albeit with less success than he wanted, and supported increases in education spending and initiatives to make tax assessments and collections more accurate. But he detested labor unions and was generally disinterested in child labor laws, and his maneuvering on Prohibition appeared transparently political.

Evaluating the outcomes of Prohibition is as difficult as tracing the motivations for making it law. Most national studies cite reductions in total alcohol consumption and deaths caused by alcohol, and doubtless that is true in Alabama as well. But bootlegging, the illegal manufacturing of alcohol, continued to provide Alabamians with alcohol that was often significantly more harmful than properly distilled varieties. Meanwhile, Prohibition deprived the state of tax revenue generated by legal sales. Governors Emmet O’Neal and Charles Henderson had no passion for Prohibition, and neither made enforcement a top priority. Corruption among local and state law enforcement and bootleggers was widespread enough to create a legion of stories, legends, and half-truths about the entire period. Adding to the confusion, the state supported repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment by ratifying the Twenty-first Amendment, but nearly half of Alabama’s counties elected to remain dry even after liquor sales were legalized.

Pattie Ruffner Jacobs Alabama women were prominent members of the Prohibition campaign and other reform efforts, but for many, gaining the right to vote was their most important Progressive cause. Some suffragists were motivated by their desire to be part of the social movement toward modernity during the era, and others, like Pattie Ruffner Jacobs, saw the potential for expanded roles for women in society. Like other Progressive causes, group action was critical. Early suffragists could be found in Alabama’s garden clubs and book clubs, which seemed unlikely incubators for suffrage but provided opportunities for women to gather and organize in common cause. Later, more focused groups like the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association, National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the Alabama League of Women Voters rallied significant numbers of Alabama women for the vote.

African American women were excluded from the organizations that lobbied for suffrage, as they were in virtually all Progressive-era organizations. White Alabama women were generally divided into three camps: those who did not want the vote; those who wanted the vote secured by the state so that black women were excluded; and those who wanted the franchise secured and protected by the federal government through a constitutional amendment. Women who supported suffrage in either form tended to also champion other Progressive-era causes, as well. Ironically, some of the women who agitated against women’s voting rights, like Marie Bankhead Owen who helped organized the Southern Anti-Suffrage Association, were important supporters of other Progressive causes, further revealing the contradictory nature of much of Progressivism. Alabama rejected state sponsored suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment, but it earned national ratification anyway in 1919. Senators John H. Bankhead and Oscar Underwood argued that women’s votes could lead to racial turmoil and few men in state or local government felt strongly enough about suffrage to stake their political careers on the issue by giving it their unequivocal public support.

Legacy of Progressivism

Progressivism’s most enduring legacy in Alabama may be its contradictory nature and the interest groups it solidified. By the waning years of the movement, reformers had limited child labor and eventually overturned the convict-leasing system. Alabama students had more resources and Alabama teachers had higher pay by the end of the era, but these improvements were still not enough to significantly alter the nature of education in a state where sharecropping and low-wage, low-skill labor was a common future for so many. Government expanded, but in a state where distrust of all levels of government is a historical constant, much of the change was presided over by interest groups who defined the meaning of reform and dictated its limits. Progressives, encouraged that they were able to use organizing and social science to inform and direct positive change in the state, found even that optimism short-sighted as the Great Depression soon overwhelmed them and ended, once and for all, this unusual period of reform.

Further Reading

  • Hackney, Sheldon. Populism to Progressivism in Alabama. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.
  • Hild, Matthew. Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.

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