The Progressive Era: The World of Ragtime

Not unlike our country today, the start of the 20th century was marked by innovation and social change in the United States. In three weeks, Ragtime, Tony Award winner for Best Book and Best Musical Score, opens at The Smith Center. Ragtime explores the stories of an upper-class wife, a determined Jewish immigrant and a daring young Harlem musician — set in turn-of-the-19th century New York – and how the three are united by their desire and belief in a brighter tomorrow. Below we take a look at the time of Ragtime.

The Progressive Era was an extremely important time for America’s women. During this time women gained greater access to education and began to assert their equality in the home. At the end of the 19th century women were seen as the “moral guardians” and protectors of the home. Many activists used this ideology as a justification for women to take a more active role in the political arena. During the Progressive Era women became more civically engaged and played a major role in the labor and temperance movements. Settlement houses founded by women became important community centers in urban areas; they provided education, health services, arts activities, and helped immigrants adapt to American culture. Women’s rights advanced significantly during this time period as women worked on many issues related to sexuality, marriage, and childbirth; including divorce rights and birth control. Thanks to the hard work of prominent women activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony the19th amendment to the constitution was ratified in 1920, giving women the right to vote.

America saw tremendous industrial growth during the late 19th century and early 20th century, resulting in corporations of unprecedented size like Standard Oil and U.S. Steel Corp. Big business leaders, often called robber barons, enjoyed unprecedented power by taking advantage of minimal government regulation and exploitative labor practices. Worker strikes were common and often violent affairs. Activist journalists, called muckrakers, published numerous exposés of big business, including Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” about unsanitary and unfair practices in the Chicago meat packing industry and Jacob Riis’ “How the Other Half Lives” exposing the conditions of tenement slums. President Teddy Roosevelt broke with many of his Republican colleagues when he supported stronger government regulation of business and took the side of labor in the settlement of the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. As a result of these efforts the Progressive Era saw significant reforms in the regulation of working conditions and numerous antitrust suites.

New Rochelle is a suburb of New York City located in Westchester County, New York. The town was settled by refugee Huguenots (French Protestants) in 1688 who were fleeing Catholic pogroms in France. In 1900 its population was 14,720. During the Progressive Era, New Rochelle became the site of one of the first planned communities in the United States. Rochelle Park, completed in 1904, was the precursor to today’s ubiquitous suburban subdivisions.

From 1891 to 1900, 4 million immigrants entered the United States, from 1901 to 1910 that number increased to 8.8 million. In 1910, three-fourths of New York City’s population was either immigrants or first generation Americans. Unlike earlier immigrants, the immigrant populations of the progressive era came primarily from non-English speaking European countries. Large numbers came from Italy, Russia and Poland and often had a difficult time adjusting to American life. Many faced extreme poverty and discrimination. Most settled in urban centers where jobs were available and ended up taking work that other Americans would not. They became a cheap source of labor for the country’s wealthy robber barons and played a key role in the labor movement. Settlement houses founded by a new generation of educated women became important education and community centers for many poor urban immigrants.

Despite the advances in Women’s rights and labor, the rights of African Americans actually regressed after the progress made during the Reconstruction Era. Post emancipation, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, as well as theCivil Rights Act of 1875, provided many new freedoms. However, rights began to diminish after Reconstruction ended in 1877. The end of the 19th century saw the rise of Jim Crow laws in the South, where 90 percent of African Americans lived at the time. Supreme Court rulings like Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which upheld a Louisiana law segregating train cars, paved the way for legal discrimination throughout the South. Lynching was a common practice and “progressive” reforms made it easier to deny African American’s voting rights. It was not until 1815 withGuinn v. United States when the Supreme Court began to strike down some of the laws, although Plessy v. Ferguson would have to wait until 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education to be overturned. Still, the era was not without its victories, the Niagara Movement led by W.E.B. DuBois and William Monroe Trotter resulted in the formation of theNational Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Booker T. Washington, one of Ragtime’s characters, became a prominent and influential African American leader and founded the Tuskegee Institute, which became Tuskegee University, in 1881 to educate blacks. The onset of World War II saw the beginning of the Great Migration, as many southern Blacks headed north to find industrial jobs and escape the violent racial oppression in the South.

Ragtime music was an important element of the Progressive Era soundtrack. The African American piano style originated in the Midwest and South sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s. One of its defining characteristics is heavily syncopated or “ragged” rhythms. The style grew out of the Cakewalk, a popular African American dance competition of the time named for the prize commonly given to the winner. Composer Scott Joplin popularized ragtime in 1899 with the release of his classic “Maple Leaf Rag.”

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