High School by architect Charles M. Robinson
, built in 1908, was typical of the modern public schools that cities built during the Progressive Era.
The Progressive Era after 1900 brought numerous reforms, designed to modernize the state, increase efficiency, apply scientific methods, promote education and eliminate waste and corruption.
A key leader was Governor Claude Swanson (1906–10), a Democrat who left machine politics behind to win office using the new primary law. Swanson's coalition of reformers in the legislature, built schools and highways, raised teacher salaries and standards, promoted the state's public health programs, and increased funding for prisons. Swanson fought against child labor, lowered railroad rates and raised corporate taxes, while systematizing state services and introducing modern management techniques. The state funded a growing network of roads, with much of the work done by black convicts in chain gangs. After Swanson moved to the U.S. Senate in 1910 he promoted Progressivism at the national level as a supporter of President Woodrow Wilson, who had been born in Virginia and was considered a native son. Swanson, as a power on naval affairs, promoted the Norfolk Navy Yard and Newport News Ship Building and Drydock Corporation. Swanson's statewide organization evolved into the "Byrd Organization."
The State Corporation Commission (SCC) was formed as part of the 1902 Constitution, over the opposition of the railroads, to regulate railroad policies and rates. The SCC was independent of parties, courts, and big businesses, and was designed to maximize the public interest. It became an effective agency, which especially pleased local merchants by keeping rates low.
Virginia has a long history of agricultural reformers, and the Progressive Era stimulated their efforts. Rural areas suffered persistent problems, such as declining populations, widespread illiteracy, poor farming techniques, and debilitating diseases among both farm animals and farm families. Reformers emphasized the need to upgrade the quality of elementary education. With federal help, in they set up a county agent system (today the Virginia Cooperative Extension) that taught farmers the latest scientific methods for dealing with tobacco and other crops, and farm house wives how to maximize their efficiency in the kitchen and nursery.
Some upper-class women, typified by Lila Meade Valentine of Richmond, promoted numerous Progressive reforms, including kindergartens, teacher education, visiting nurses programs, and vocational education for both races. Middle-class white women were especially active in the Prohibition movement. The woman suffrage movement became entangled in racial issues—whites were reluctant to allow black women the vote—and was unable to broaden its base beyond middle-class whites. Virginia women got the vote in 1920, the result of a national constitutional amendment.
In higher education, the key leader was Edwin A. Alderman, president of the University of Virginia, 1904–31. His goal was the transformation of the southern university into a force for state service and intellectual leadership. and educational utility. Alderman successfully professionalized and modernized the state's system of higher education. He promoted international standards of scholarship, and a statewide network of extension services. Joined by other college presidents, he promoted the Virginia Education Commission, created in 1910. Alderman's crusade encountered some resistance from traditionalists, and never challenged the Jim Crow system of segregated schooling.
While the progressives were modernizers, there was also a surge of interest in Virginia traditions and heritage, especially among the aristocratic First Families of Virginia (FFV). The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), founded in Williamsburg in 1889, emphasized patriotism in the name of Virginia's 18th-century Founding Fathers. In 1907, the Jamestown Exposition was held near Norfolk to celebrate the tricentennial of the arrival of the first English colonists and the founding of Jamestown.
Attended by numerous federal dignitaries, and serving as the launch point for the Great White Fleet, the Jamestown Exposition also spurred interest in the military potential of the area. The site of the exposition would later become, in 1917, the location of the Norfolk Naval Station. The proximity to Washington, D.C., the moderate climate, and strategic location of a large harbor at the center of the Atlantic seaboard made Virginia a key location during World War I for new military installations. These included Fort Story, the Army Signal Corps station at Langley, Quantico Marine Base in Prince William County, Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Fort Lee near Petersburg and Fort Eustis, in Warwick County (now Newport News). At the same time, heavy shipping traffic made the area a target for U-boats, and a number of merchant vessels were attacked or sunk off the Virginia coast.