Texas in the Progressive Era, 1900-1929

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Chapter Nine Overview

Texas in the Progressive Era, 1900–1929

Although early-twentieth-century Texas witnessed the beginning of a transition from rural to urban state, challenges remained in race relations and the economy. Agriculture continued to dominate the economic scene, but oil ushered in prosperity and modernity, while segregation continued to define race relations.


The Texas landscape became dotted with boomtowns, derricks, and refineries as more and more Texans drove gasoline-powered automobiles over asphalt roads. Oil-related spin-off industries proved to be even more important than Spindletop itself. While Texas was not yet an industrial state, economic expansion led to one of the more prosperous periods in Texas’ history. U.S. entry into World War I spurred the ship-building, oil and petrochemical industries.

Urban Growth and Workers

Each decade saw a steady increase in the urban population as major Texas cities acquired specific characteristics: Fort Worth became known as a cowtown, Dallas a financial and business center, San Antonio an important military center and tourist destination, Houston one of the nation’s major ports, and El Paso the commercial hub of the Trans-Pecos region.

On September 8, 1900, a hurricane slammed into Galveston Island, killing approximately 6,000 people and devastating the economy and business community. Although after the storm Houston replaced Galveston as the economic giant of the Texas Gulf Coast, Galveston rebuilt its place in the sun, both economically and politically. The commission plan of municipal government (a handful of businessmen acting as a policy-making and legislative body) emerged out of the devastation. Even though critics charged that the commission plan diluted the strength of minorities, Progressives did not disapprove of elites’ control of local government. The Galveston Plan—or the Texas Idea, as it also came to be called—served as a model for municipal reform across the nation.

Texas cities retained a rural, southern character, since most new residents were “in-state immigrants,” even as they began to develop modern amenities. The League of Texas Municipalities, organized in 1913, endorsed the “city beautiful” movement. Urbanites coexisted with their rural counterparts despite some uneasiness due to the vast social changes occurring across the nation in the 1920s.

Although by 1929 a Texas worker’s wage was only about 80 percent of the national average, the labor force expanded due to cheaper housing and heating costs in the South. The cost of living doubled between 1913 and 1920, offsetting any real increase in wages, but a growing number of industrial jobs made urban areas more attractive than rural.

In 1930, a higher percentage of urban women than rural women were employed (an increase of about 25 percent over 1920). There was an accompanying decrease in the number of female agricultural workers by nearly one-half as more women moved to urban areas and the demand for agricultural labor in general dropped. Whereas the growth of large cities and new technologies meant better job opportunities for women, a disproportionately high percentage of divorcees and widows were unskilled laborers. Some jobs became type-cast as woman’s work: teachers, nurses, librarians, telephone operators, clerical workers, and salespeople.

The rising percentage of white married women in the workplace contributed to the concept of the “New Woman” who demonstrated independence and social activism. Although most Texans opposed a proposed child labor amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the state mandated compulsory school attendance in 1915, effectively decreasing the number of children in the labor pool.

Labor Unions

Labor unions never enjoyed a strong base in Texas. In the early twentieth century, the Texas State Federation of Labor was the strongest union, with 512 “locals” in 1918 but declining to 135 by 1931. The United Mine Workers’ Union was relatively strong until oil replaced coal as the principal source of energy. The first “Red Scare” further restricted the expansion of organized labor, as the public tended to associate labor unions with socialism and the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Open Port Law urged by governors W. P. Hobby and Pat Neff was indicative of the anti-labor sentiment that prevailed.

Agriculture and Rural Life

Commercial agriculture developed and moved into West Texas, where the flat terrain and climate were well-suited for the growing of cotton and wheat. Cotton also joined the budding citrus industry in promoting the economic development of the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Regrettably, the boll weevil devastated South Texas cotton production, although the destructive insect could not survive the winter freezes common in the Panhandle.

Another indication of transformation was the significant drop in the number of beef cattle and horses while the number of dairy cows, mules, and sheep and goats rose. Texas led the South in value of farms and farm buildings as well as in farm income per family in 1929, but the state still trailed the agricultural Midwest. Crop liens increased as all tenants were forced to borrow against their expected income. Black tenant farmers and their families remained the poorest of all, with women probably facing the greatest hardships in the southern cotton culture.

Although new technology improved farm women’s lives, the majority of women, and especially black women, did not enjoy electricity and indoor plumbing; neither did the automobile or telephone quickly lessen the isolation and loneliness of rural life. Overall, the lives of farm and urban wives focused primarily on family responsibilities.

African Americans

Historians have identified the early twentieth century as the nadir of U.S. race relations. Segregation was the norm and black political participation was nil, although blacks acquired some voting power as they migrated into urban areas. In Nixon v. Herndon (1927) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all-white primaries violated the Fourteenth Amendment; but other obstacles surfaced, and most black Texans did not vote until 1944. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against residential segregation and the like, the Texas legislature authorized cities to pass zoning regulations effectively segregating neighborhoods. Urban ghettos developed in which health and recreational facilities and governmental services such as paving and road repair, lighting, sewage, and police protection were inadequate. By 1930, both segregation and inequality of services in the ghettos were the norm.

Texas ranked third nationally in the grisly statistic of the lynching of black persons. Race riots erupted periodically (Beaumont, Longview, Port Arthur, Houston, Brownsville); and, in 1916, hundreds turned out to view the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco. Gradually, organizations such as The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were founded to fight extralegal acts against African Americans. White reformers and newspapers like the Dallas Morning News and the San Antonio Express openly denounced segregation and white oppression. Most religious organizations stood in opposition to racial violence, as did the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, led by Jessie Daniel Ames of Texas.

The majority of blacks lived in rural areas and worked as tenants and farm laborers. Most remained poor although organizations that promoted self-help through cooperatives and educational fairs attempted to help offset poverty and segregation. Other black Texans sought to escape rural poverty by migrating into urban areas—Texas cities and even northern cities. From 1900 to 1930, the number of African American males employed in urban areas doubled. Most were unskilled jobs that had previously been held by whites. A higher percentage of black women than white women were employed, most as seamstresses, laundresses, or domestics.

Black Texans formed their own social, religious, and fraternal organizations, preparing the next generation of African Americans to dismantle the Jim Crow system. Churches continued to play a significant role as public forums. Of course, the segregated school system also prepared black leaders, but disparities hampered the educational opportunities of black Texans. Black schools were substandard; per capita spending for white students was triple that spent to educate black children.


Economic and political distress in Mexico and the need for cheap labor in the U.S. fueled the immigration wave of the early twentieth century. Texans of Mexican ancestry were by far the largest ethnic group in the state by 1930, but lingering racist attitudes prevailed, and Mexican Americans remained deprived of full citizenship rights. The poll- tax requirement and the reality of the “white primary” served to disenfranchise many Mexican American voters. Like blacks, Mexican Americans also encountered segregation in residential areas, schools, and in the delivery of public services.

The majority of Mexican Americans in Texas lived in rural areas, making their living as agricultural workers, sheep herders, or as migrant cotton pickers. A general pattern of migratory labor, known as the “Big Swing,” began to form in the 1920s and persisted for about fifty years. Mexican neighborhoods developed in places like Lubbock, as families wearied of the constant migration and sought to establish permanent roots.

Texas Mexicans also organized self-help organizations or mutualistas. More politically-focused organizations included El Primer Congreso Mexicanista and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) founded in 1929. Members of La Orden Hijos de America, LULAC’s predecessor, emerged out of the small bourgeoisie element that became doctors, lawyers, merchants and World War I veterans -- the “Mexican American Generation” that succeeded the “Immigration Generation.”

Other Ethnic Groups

The state’s ethnic groups supported fifty-seven foreign-language newspapers in 1909. In 1919, forty of them were still being published despite the economic and cultural pressures imposed by World War I. Germans, the second largest white ethnic group after Mexicans, contributed to the mainstream culture their cuisine and architecture, as well as their native tongue, which remained relatively strong until the war years. Other ethnic groups included the Czech, Polish, Italian, Norwegian, Lebanese, Greek, Swedish, Belgian, Danish, French, Hungarian, Russian, Swiss, British, Chinese, and a few Japanese. Many “folk islands” developed in major cities and select counties. The exception to ethnic white and Anglo Texas compatibility was the anti-German sentiment associated with the war years.


The Progressive Era brought rapid social and economic reform. A rising middle class promoted economic development and sought to curtail the influence of big business. Agrarian reformers desired public education, the regulation of railroads, and the betterment of rural life. Social reformers worked to purify social institutions by prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol and by improving society through prison, education, social welfare, and suffrage reforms. Progressivism in Texas succeeded despite the use of outmoded agrarian solutions and the focus on political self-interest within a one-party system that revealed a bias against the domination of northern financial interests.

Into the Twentieth Century: Texas Politics

Some governors were more committed to progressive reform than others. Ushering in the reform era, the agrarian coalition of former Governor James Hogg pushed through reforms to counter railroad abuses. Businesspersons, prohibitionists, women’s clubs, and the State Federation of Labor pushed for election reform and secured adoption of the poll tax in 1902, a system of voter registration that largely disenfranchised large numbers of African Americans and poor whites. Passage of the 1903 and 1905 Terrell Election Laws attempted to eliminate election fraud by initiating candidate selection through primaries rather than by convention.

Restoring competition in the marketplace was a significant element of progressivism, but reform in Texas received a setback with the antitrust suit against Waters-Pierce, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey that implicated Congressman Joseph W. Bailey and Henry Clay Pierce, president of Waters-Pierce. Found in violation of Texas antitrust law, the company forfeited its state charter but Bailey persuaded Governor Sayers and other state officials to restore the charter. Bailey maintained that his relationship with Standard Oil was not a conflict of interest or political misconduct but rather a client-lawyer relationship. Bailey was elected and reelected U.S. Senator until he retired to private life in January 1913.

Progressive reform began in earnest with the election of Democrat Governor Thomas M. Campbell. With the cooperation of the Thirtieth Legislature, the Hogg anti-railroad amendments, an anti-nepotism law, and antitrust legislation were passed. Another significant accomplishment was passage of the Robertson Insurance Law of 1907 and a state insurance program to protect deposits in the newly authorized state banking system. Although some aspects were later referred to as “business progressivism,” Campbell advocated direct democracy through the use of initiative, referendum, and recall and encouraged expansion of the Galveston Plan (Texas Idea).

Oscar Branch Colquitt was not as committed to reform but did succeed in implementing the regulation of child labor, factory safety standards, workers’ compensation, penal reform, and a limitation on women’s work hours for health and safety reasons. Reform was limited by the state’s dire financial condition resulting from a narrow tax base and a $1 million deficit due to the needs of new state institutions, public education, prison reform, and border violence (Mexican Revolution of 1910).

General Progressive Reforms

Educational reforms spurred an increase in public school attendance, a corresponding drop in the rate of illiteracy, a rise in teacher salaries, and an increase in state expenditures per student, although still considerably below the amount spent per pupil in most northern and midwestern states. Standardization was mandated with five-year textbook adoptions and setting state requirements for students and teachers. School consolidation, an unsuccessful attempt to equalize the quality of instruction between rural and urban schools, resulted in the creation of independent school districts. The State Board of Education brought bureaucratic efficiency to the state, overseeing the apportioning of public school funds, the selection of textbooks, the investments made by the permanent school fund, and the distribution of funds to rural schools. Annie Webb Blanton organized the “Better Schools Campaign” and became the first woman to hold statewide office as superintendent of public instruction from 1918 to 1922.

Reforms in higher education focused on professional education; graduate training; and the creation of business, education, and engineering colleges. Community colleges were established with open-door admissions policies. In an effort to revitalize Texas farms, the state established demonstration farms, conducted agrarian institutes, and created the county extension program to provide scientific training and cooperative marketing concepts.

Efficiency in management and the use of trained experts impacted the operation of prisons and eleemosynary institutions, reclamation projects in forests and waterways, and highway development. However, mismanagement and financial misconduct increased problems. Ultimately, a plan for future highway development was formulated and the department was reorganized. The progressive goal of a professional and efficient highway agency materialized in time.

Reform Interrupted: The Ferguson Administration, 1915-1917

Although “Fergusonism” was identified with demagoguery and corruption, James “Pa” Ferguson was a self-made man with whom the oppressed and tenant farmers strongly identified. Despite Ferguson’s impeachment, some reforms were implemented, including Ferguson’s farm tenancy bill capping farm rents and increased funding for colleges. His second term saw even higher educational appropriations, expansion of the college network, a revision of labor laws, and a state highway commission. Border problems escalated with discovery of the radical manifesto, the Plan de San Diego, in January 1915. Ferguson ordered all available Texas Ranger companies to South Texas to restore order, even as U.S. Army General John J. Pershing marched into Mexico to capture the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.

Atrocities implicating the Texas Rangers were investigated by state legislator J. T. Canales, resulting in smaller Ranger companies. Ferguson’s troubles mounted when he battled against University of Texas faculty members regarding the university’s appropriation of the Permanent University Fund, which he threatened to veto. The University Board of Regents called for his impeachment and received the backing of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association leader, Minnie Fisher Cunningham. Ferguson resigned to avoid impeachment. The court of impeachment removed him anyway and banned him from holding future state offices. This had no impact on Ferguson’s plans, however. He unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1922 while his wife obtained the Texas governorship in 1925.

Woodrow Wilson, Will Hobby, and World War I, 1917-1919

Will Hobby’s election as governor signified a victory for Woodrow Wilson’s policies as well as a rejection of Fergusonism. Hobby supported women’s suffrage and prohibition, but tensions between whites and blacks accelerated; even black men in uniform were lynched or court martialed for causing riots. Texas contributed greatly to the war effort. After the war ended the state’s veterans were generously provided with free tuition at state institutions and assistance in finding employment.

Women in Action

World War I increased women’s opportunities in the work force and in voluntary agencies, fueling the suffrage movement’s final surge and contributing to the concept of the “New Woman”—vigorous and progressive — who saw options in life other than marriage and motherhood. The women’s club movement significantly impacted reform in the creation of public parks, state eleemosynary institutions, and city beautification movements. Women were also involved in the settlement house movement, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the League of Women Voters, the Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teachers-Associations, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union as well as other professional organizations.

Women also played a key role in passage of the Prohibition Amendment. Prohibition dominated Texas politics and split the Democratic party into competing factions. Lobbying groups such as the Texas Brewers’ Association and the Retail Liquor Dealers’ Association tried to influence elections with illegal campaign contributions. Overall, alcohol was associated with ethnic groups (and the Democratic party). It became “unpatriotic” to drink, or to criticize the war effort.

Progressives saw nothing wrong in imposing their values on others, thus protecting morality through prohibition. They expected public schools and other state institutions to Americanize foreigners, inculcating middle-class values. The state legislature mandated the teaching of patriotism and citizenship. Laws were changed to prevent the foreign born from voting and Germans, in particular, were ostracized. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, everything associated with the Soviet Union was also regarded as un-American. Bolsheviks, Socialists, and minority groups in general were harassed and deprived of their civil liberties.

The Return of Progressive Administration in Texas

The administrations of William P. Hobby and Pat M. Neff coincided with new job opportunities and prosperity after the economic downturn of 1920 -1921. Hobby, a business progressive, worked to strengthen Texas’ expanding urban economic network but only his measures to aid education succeeded, due to an unconcerned legislature and public. Neff was successful in consolidating the Pure Food and Drug Department with the Health Department, the creation of cooperative marketing associations for farmers, and water reclamation and irrigation districts. Neff also put a stop to the easy granting of paroles and used martial law on at least two occasions. His legacy was the Good Roads movement and the creation of a state park network. Trying to enforce prohibition, however, caused Neff his biggest headache. Interestingly, he supported the Ku Klux Klan’s opposition to bootlegging.

The Klan, Fundamentalism, and the Evolution Debate

Failed attempts to enforce prohibition caused a “crime wave” and a general decline in community values. Historians have cited urban growth (migration and immigration) as the cause of tensions between rural and urban Americans. World War I and the Red Scare simply exacerbated the tensions. The “new” Klan emerged in this same time period and appealed to the new urban middle class while still opposing radicals, Catholics, Jews, blacks, Mexicans, and foreign immigration. The hub of Klan support was in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, East Texas, and Central Texas. Imposing moral conformity rather than racism and nativism was the Klan’s major motivation. Neff and other members of the elite (including judges and law enforcement officers) gave unspoken support to the Klan and Neff refused to condemn Klan extralegal use of force. Many Protestant churches endorsed its anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic disposition.

In 1924, the year that Neff finally spoke out against the Klan, voters nominated Miriam A. Ferguson for governor rather than the Klan candidate. Membership in the Klan began to drop, but the organization’s demand for conformity accompanied a resurgence of religious fundamentalism. Protestant churches and ministers took the lead in the fight to establish moral conformity in the midst of the revolutionary social changes of the 1920s. Texas, however, did not pass a law barring the teaching of the theory of human evolution in public schools due to its heterogeneous population and strong opposition from state legislators from the German Hill County and the Rio Grande Valley.

The Waning of Progressivism, 1925–1931

The end for progressivism in Texas came with Miriam Ferguson’s gubernatorial victory. “Ma” Ferguson was not reform-minded and during her administration the political controversies that had plagued her husband’s administration continued. After a young state attorney general, Dan Moody, defeated “Ma” Ferguson in the 1926 race, progressive reform took a new direction — business progressivism. Governmental efficiency in civil service, new taxation laws, more modern fiscal control on state agencies, a reorganization of part of the state judiciary, and expanded appointive powers for the governor became key priorities.

In 1928, the unity of progressive Democrats was shattered with Al Smith’s presidential nomination; apparently, the Roman Catholic and “wet” candidate was just too much for some Democrats to accept. In November, Texas joined North Carolina and Florida in voting Republican (for Herbert Hoover) in the presidential election for the first time since Reconstruction. Moody’s second term witnessed the great stock market collapse of 1929 and an economy in tatters. Although the rhetoric of business progressivism went silent during the Great Depression, remnants can be found in popular acceptance of the public-service functions of government.

Chapter Nine Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of studying this chapter, you will be able to:

  • comprehend the economic and cultural impact of immigration on the state,

  • understand the origins of progressive reform,

  • be able to cite specific reforms that impacted the state and nation,

  • appreciate the political and economic ramifications of progressive reform,

  • anticipate the social implications of progressive reform on women and minorities.

Chapter Nine Key Words and Terms

  • Spindletop

  • Magnolia Petroleum Company (Mobil)

  • Humble Oil Company (Exxon)

  • Fort Worth (“Cowtown”)

  • Galveston Plan

  • Houston Ship Channel

  • Texas State Federation of Labor

  • boll weevil

  • Nixon v. Herndon (1927)

  • Jesse Washington


  • Maury Maverick

  • Prairie View A and M

  • 1906 racial disturbance in Brownsville

  • Longview race riot (1919)

  • “greaser”

  • “halfers” or “croppers”

  • la pizca

  • Jim Wells

  • James “Pa” Ferguson

  • Terrell Election Law

  • Baileyism

  • Thomas M. Campbell

  • Oscar Branch Colquitt

  • University Interscholastic League

  • Good Roads Association

  • Texas Highway Department

  • Texas Forestry Association

  • Plan de San Diego

  • William P. Hobby

  • World War I

  • Annie Webb Blanton

  • League of Women Voters

  • Robertson Insurance Law of 1907

  • ”petticoat lobby”

  • Pat M. Neff

  • The Rebel

  • Miriam “Ma” Ferguson

Chapter Nine Links

  • Texas State Library and Archives Commission, telegram to Governor Sayers from citizens of Galveston regarding the calamity that had just struck their city. See “Texas Rising” link for short bios of various governors, including Joseph D. Sayers, and Handbook of Texas online article.

  • A letter to S. W. T. Lanham, Governor of Texas, from County Judge of Cameron County, regarding an “unprovoked, wanton, and malicious attack upon our people and our homes” that occurred in 1906, allegedly by twelve African American enlisted men and became a national incident after President Theodore Roosevelt gave dishonorable discharges to all 167 African American enlisted men.

  • Texas State Library and Archives Commission, campaign material in support of James “Pa” Ferguson, 1914.

  • Texas State Library and Archives Commission; campaign material in opposition to James Ferguson, 1924.

  • Texas State Library and Archives Commission, League of Women Voters of Texas exhibit contains photos, links to primary sources, including Jessie Daniel Ames Papers; the “Petticoat Lobby,” “African American Women and the Vote” and “Tejano Women and the Vote.”

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