In the early twentieth century, South Carolina’s interrelated economic and social problems defied easy solutions due to their sheer magnitude. Taken together, South Carolina’s poorly educated population, its low per capita wealth, and its cotton-dependent economy left the state saddled with a small tax base. The inadequate tax base made mustering political support for programs or policies that strained South Carolina’s limited financial resources an arduous task. Yet, a small portion of South Carolinians recognized the need to reverse these long-standing, economically distressing trends. Confronted with South Carolina’s economic and social “backwardness,” an active cohort of progressive reformers worked to move South Carolina from the bottom tier of many lists that evaluated economic well-being and satisfactory standard of living.
South Carolina progressives, like reformers throughout the nation, emerged primarily from the town-based middle class, which included lawyers, journalists, professors, educators, ministers, businessmen, doctors, civic leaders, agricultural scientists, agricultural extension agents, and others. These progressives pushed for economic and social improvement in their state from roughly 1900 through the 1920s. As a loosely knit group of individuals who shared a broad and variously articulated vision for the future of their state and region, South Carolina progressives dreamed of an economically prosperous state that could ease human suffering. Like their national counterparts, South Carolina reformers were imbued with notions linking efficiency and progress and with a belief that the appropriate expertise could remedy any of society’s economic, political, and social ills. They wanted to bring order and efficiency to government and business. But implementation of the progressives’ agenda for South Carolina required a more activist state government than many South Carolinians believed to be acceptable. Consequently, progressives constantly faced entrenched conservative opposition to their reform agenda.
Fundamentally, progressives deemed an educated population to be essential to all other reform endeavors. From grade school to college, educational improvement received attention from reformers because of South Carolina’s manifest deficiencies at all levels. Progressives advocated improving the economy with commercial and industrial development. Moreover, they focused on strengthening the economy with improved agriculture by helping South Carolina diversify its agriculture, decrease its dependence on cotton, and encourage scientific agricultural methods. Most progressives advocated construction of a state network of highways, believing that improved transportation facilitated all other economic development strategies. Since additional revenue was central to any reform, revising South Carolina’s tax structure loomed large on the reformers’ agenda. To improve humanitarian institutions, some progressives highlighted as serious social ills South Carolina’s horrendous prison conditions, its inadequate reformatories for errant youths, its labor-exploitative chain gangs, and the employment of children in the textile industry. Others crusaded for improvement in public health, better mental health facilities, county almshouses for indigent elderly people, and restrictions on child labor in industry. Like their counterparts in other southern states, some South Carolina progressives crusaded for an improved system of criminal justice and against extralegal violence, including the practice of lynching. But as southerners, South Carolina progressives remained firmly committed to segregation and white dominance. They insisted on carefully devised reform efforts to insure that proposed reforms benefited whites first and foremost.
Most of the progressives’ legislative successes came after 1915, when Richard I. Manning succeeded Cole Blease, an ardent opponent of reform, as governor. Blease, who enjoyed the solid political support of mill operatives, had used his veto power to thwart middle-class reforms desired by progressives but deemed intrusive by mill operatives. During Manning’s governorship, South Carolina progressives proudly included among their accomplishments state prohibition, child labor restrictions, compulsory school attendance, creation of the state tax commission, a reorganized state mental hospital, and most importantly, state aid for public schools. Yet even the reforms undertaken during Manning’s administration only partially remedied the state’s problems. For example, a loophole remained in prohibition that allowed each South Carolinian to obtain a “gallon-a-month” of alcohol for medicinal purposes. Child labor laws restricted employment only of children less than twelve years old (later raised to fourteen years old), and compulsory school attendance remained “optional,” with few districts opting for it. In the 1920s progressives managed significant tax reform that began taxing income to ease the fiscal burden on non-income-generating property. This new revenue helped fund enormous increases in education and highway spending. Conservative opposition and a lumbering economy remained formidable obstacles for progressives well into the 1920s. The onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s finally halted a generation of reform. Given the state’s limited resources, the constraints of white supremacy, and extensive conservative opposition, South Carolina progressives made respectable gains in public education, infrastructure improvement, and tax equalization, building a foundation for later generations interested in bringing South Carolina into the educational and economic mainstream.
Burts, Robert Milton. Richard Irvine Manning and the Progressive Movement in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1974.
Carlton, David L. Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880–1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Mitchell, Sandra Corley. “Conservative Reform: South Carolina’s Progressive Movement, 1915–1929.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1979.