The failures of Reconstruction, the increase in industrialization and urbanization, an ever-evolving labor market, and a rapid increase in scientific and medical research makes the Progressive era one of the most transformative periods of American history. This era is characterized by massive industrial and economic booms, coupled with ever-worsening social and economic disparities, particularly within minority communities. Medical research and scientific knowledge supported racial discrimination as African American bodies became seen as 'defective,' 'different,' and inferior within the periods' rapidly increasing labor market. Leading medical and actuarial professionals utilized racist and discriminatory 'science' to promote eugenic movements that ultimately aimed to stifle minority culture, labor, and life. Historian Paul Lawrie's 2016 monograph, Forging a Laboring Race: The African American Worker in the Progressive Imagination, examines how the racialization of Black bodies changed during the Progressive and postwar eras. Organized chronologically, each chapter focuses on a set of years and explains how different Progressive era organizations, intellectuals, and movements, reconstructed the African American identity and laborer through the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Lawrie's monograph begins with examining nineteenth-century actuarial science explicitly looking at the work of Frederick Hoffman. This chapter is an extension of Lawrie's 2013 article "Mortality as the Life Story of a People: Frederick Hoffman and Actuarial Narratives of African American Extinction" in which Lawrie argues the "rise in corporate industrial insurance became a key commodity in the formation of a racial labor division." 1 Hoffman's publication Race Traits of the American Negro created a justification for the exclusion of African Americans from participation in the economy based on studies of venereal disease, criminality, and respiratory health. While Black intellectuals such as W.E.B Dubois challenged this racialized "scientific" narrative, the empirical data collected by Hoffman had a lasting impact on Progressive era thinkers. Hoffman's justification for Black inferiority allowed the labor market to exclude African Americans based on corporate industrial insurance.

The rise in African American labor due to wartime demands of working-age whites and the eventual inclusion of African Americans into the armed service are the focus of the next two chapters. Chapters two and three are some of the strongest sections of the work and beautifully display how the Progressive era's interpretation and reconstruction of race are utilized by the state to establish a wide array of racial disparities. Lawrie explains that the wartime state grew into a "key mediator in the processes of Black's entry into industrial modernity." 2 The Department of Negro Economics (DNE) worked to incorporate African Americans into the wartime economy. The DNE argued that through vocational uplift, African American workers could establish a "respectable and efficient work ethic and a new 'industrial consciousness' to counter prevailing narratives of the congenitally unfit Negro worker." 3 The third chapter expands on the wartime state and explains how the need for labor resulted in the National Research Council (NRC) reexamining and redefining race. Lawrie explains how organizations such as the NRC and the Committee on Anthropology used anthropometry, or studies of the variations of the human body in regard to race, to further draw racialized lines in both the industrial and military spheres. As the wartime state moved towards increased mobilization the prewar science of racial difference became a vital tool for military evaluation and exclusion.

Chapters four and five examine the rehabilitation of Black veterans and the postwar social scientific evaluation of race. Following World War One, federal officials questioned how disabled African Americans should be rehabilitated into society. Building off prewar eugenic sciences, officials struggled to find employment for Black veterans and questioned if Blackness was a disabling preexisting condition that would render able and disabled Black bodies unfit for rehabilitation and reintegration into labor markets. Lawrie expands on this problem in the fifth chapter by explaining how postwar social scientists worked to create new forms of racial and labor difference based on African American wartime industrial efficiency. Before the war, difference was largely based on the creation of an unfit 'other,' however, the post-war state allowed for "methodological, institutional, and financial means to create taxonomies of racial labor fitness." 4

Lawrie concludes his work explaining why it is imperative that we as a society reflect and respond to the historical defamation of African American bodies. Forging a Laboring Race successfully underscores how disability was used as a social and cultural framework to create a discourse of racial discrimination during the Progressive era. One of the most substantial aspects of Lawrie's work is his use of a disability analytic when examining the strife of African American workers during the racially contested Progressive era. By addressing the imagined and created racial difference in America, Lawrie shows how African Americans were forced to navigate a society that systemically barred and disenfranchised people based on race. While Forging a Laboring Race makes significant contributions to fields of African American and disability history, it primarily serves as an academic disability history, leaving readers searching through the excessively complex language and theory for the lived experience of historical actors often overlooked within the text. With that said, Forging a Laboring Race is undoubtably well-researched, and Lawrie's sources allow a reexamination of the socially, economically, and culturally evolving notions of racial difference within Progressive era northern urban industrial markets.


  1. Lawrie, Paul R.D. "Mortality as the Life Story of a People': Frederick L. Hoffman and Actuarial Narratives of African American Extinction, 1896–1915." Canadian Review of American Studies 43, no. 3 (2013): 352–87.
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  2. Lawrie, Paul R. D. Forging a Laboring Race: The African American Worker in the Progressive Imagination. New York: New York University Press, 2016.9
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  3. Ibid 9
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  4. Ibid 11
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