Named for the Amite River, which the French had named for the word amitié (friendship) in hopes or celebration of good relations with the native Choctaws, Amite County is located in southern Mississippi on the Louisiana border. Amite was one of the earliest counties established in the Mississippi Territory—one of just eleven counties in existence in 1810. Notable geographic features of Amite County include the West and East Forks of the Amite River as well as several tributary creeks. The Homochitto National Forest includes some of northern Amite. Towns include Liberty, the county seat; Centreville; Crosby; Gloster; Gillsburg; and Smithdale.
In 1820 Amite was Mississippi’s third-largest county, with 6,853 people, among them 2,833 slaves. Like most of the territory not located on the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico, Amite was an agricultural county, with just 35 people employed in commerce or manufacturing. Slavery remained important to Amite’s economy through the antebellum period, and by 1840 60 percent of the county’s 9,511 residents were enslaved; on the eve of the Civil War, that number peaked at 64 percent. Amite farmers produced cotton, corn, rice (ranking third among the state’s counties), orchard products (fifth), and sweet potatoes (sixth). Substantial numbers of livestock were also raised. The county’s thirty-two manufacturing establishments employed eighty-three men, mostly in lumber work and blacksmithing.
In 1853 Douglas Hancock Cooper, an Amite County planter and political figure, became the US agent to the Choctaw Nation. Cooper later worked to persuade Native American nations to support the Confederacy during the Civil War. North Carolina native James Smylie became an important leader among Amite’s Presbyterians as well as a large slave owner and a prominent church-based defender of slavery.
As in much of Mississippi, the majority of Amite County residents were Baptists. According to the religious census of 1860, Amite had twenty-two churches—eleven Baptist, eight Methodist, and three Presbyterian. The 1916 religious census similarly identified Amite as a Baptist county, with Missionary Baptists and Southern Baptists making up more than two-thirds of all church members. Most of the county’s other congregations were Colored Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian, or Methodist.
Amite County’s population increased after the Civil War, reaching 14,000 by 1880. African Americans made up 61 percent of the population. The county remained rural and agricultural, with just 56 people employed in manufacturing. About half the county’s 1,620 farmers owned their land. Amite County’s voters gave considerable support to Populist candidates in the late 1800s.
Agriculture remained Amite’s primary industry through the early twentieth century. In 1900, 68 percent of white farmers owned land, compared to just 18 percent of African American farmers, most of whom labored as tenants and sharecroppers. Manufacturing had increased, and the county’s 69 factories employed 143 workers, almost all of them male. By 1930 86 percent of Amite’s population lived on farms, substantially higher than the 67 percent figure for the state as a whole. As in past decades, African Americans made up slightly more than half of the county’s population, most of them working as tenant farmers.
During World War II, Amite County became home to the US Army’s Camp Van Dorn, where soldiers trained for combat in Europe. The camp housed more than fifty thousand troops and was the site of significant confrontations between white and African American soldiers.
Amite was the site of important civil rights activism, especially in the early years of the organized movement. During the 1950s E. W. Steptoe, the head of the county’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), organized potential voters and started a newsletter, making his group one of the state’s largest. Amite County farmer Herbert Lee, who joined the NAACP in 1953, was killed in antiactivist violence in 1961. Anne Moody’s memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968), describes growing up in Centreville under Jim Crow. Will Campbell’s memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly (1977), chronicles rural Amite County during the Great Depression and Campbell’s role as one of the few white religious activists in the civil rights movement.
In 1960 Amite was home to 15,573 people, 54 percent of them African Americans; other than a very small Native American population, all of the rest were white. Amite ranked fifth in the state in the number of cattle and was noteworthy for its petroleum and gas production. The county was about average in the amount of corn, soybeans, and wheat produced but fell far below the state average in the production of cotton and the amount of commercial timberland. The leading industrial employer was the timber industry. As the population declined in the 1960s and 1970s, the number of people engaged in farming dropped dramatically, from 1,940 in 1960 to 200 two decades later.
Amite’s population has continued to decrease, falling to 13,599 in 2000 and 13,131 in 2010, when 41 percent of the residents were African American and 58 percent were white.
Amite County was the home of storytelling comedian Jerry Clower, who used local language and characters in his work. Artist George Williams, a self-taught woodcarver, and the Williams Brothers, gospel music producers, also have roots in Amite.
- Mississippi State Planning Commission, Progress Report on State Planning in Mississippi (1938)
- Mississippi Statistical Abstract, Mississippi State University (1952–2010)
- Charles Sydnor and Claude Bennett, Mississippi History (1939)
- University of Virginia Library, Historical Census Browser website, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu
- E. Nolan Waller and Dani A. Smith, Growth Profiles of Mississippi’s Counties, 1960–1980 (1985)