Set in small towns in the southwest corner of Virginia and the northeast corner of Tennessee in the early 20th Century, Significant Progress is the story of three generations of the Duncan family. It is a story that deals with the bestowed advantages of light-skinned African Americans as compared to their darker-skinned brethren. The Duncan family is described as "almost white," but despite their outward appearance of privilege and wealth, inwardly, the family is rife with problems.
Their tendency to feel superior to dark-skinned "Negroes" is just one indication of the flawed personalities within the Duncan family. They are also beset with jealousy, greed, alcoholism, hatred and even murder. There are numerous illegitimate births, scheming to cheat one member out of his rightful inheritance and numerous secrets and lies within and without the family.
There is a cast of characters who tie the plot together, including an itinerant dark-skinned preacher, a lovable and ambitious dark-skinned delivery man, a member of the local chapter of the KKK, , a highly motivated white administrator in an all white girls' college, and a savvy and loving uncle who serves as a lightning rod in making things happen.
Yet, despite their flaws and weaknesses, most (not all) of the Duncan members are eventually able to find their way onto that pertinacious path of righteousness in the end.