Attala is a hilly county located in the very heart of the state and bordered on the west by the Big Black River. Founded on 23 December 1833, Attala comprises land relinquished to the United States by the Choctaw Nation under the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. The county derives its name from Chateaubriand’s 1801 novel, Atala, which depicts a romance between a white settler and a member of Mississippi’s Natchez tribe. The county seat is Kosciusko, and notable towns and communities include Ethel, McCool, and Sallis.
In its first census, in 1840, Attala County reported 3,221 free people and 1,082 slaves. The economy was largely agricultural, though a small manufacturing sector employed locals at cotton gins, blacksmith shops, and lumber mills. By 1860 the county ranked twenty-ninth in the state in cotton production, twenty-fifth in the value of livestock, and nineteenth in production of corn. Despite its diminutive population, antebellum Attala County had a significant number of churches, the majority of which hosted Baptist and Methodist congregations.
At the turn of the century, the county’s population had risen to 26,248, with white residents continuing to slightly outnumber African Americans. Farmers still dominated the workforce, with the majority of white farmers (63 percent) owning their own land; by contrast, more than 75 percent of black farmers worked as sharecroppers. Attala was also home to a large number of manufacturing establishments, although industrial development still had little to offer the county’s population in terms of employment opportunity. By 1930, however, Attala County’s manufacturing labor force had topped eleven hundred.
Attala’s religious community continued to thrive during the early twentieth century. Indeed, the county’s Magnolia Bible College was the site of the first radio performance by the Blackwood Brothers, a quartet that eventually became a powerful force in American gospel music.
In 1960 the county’s main agricultural products included corn, cotton, soybeans, and cattle, and Attala’s timber industry had begun to produce substantial economic benefits. Yet a population decline in the county during the 1960s and 1970s contributed to diminishing agricultural production. In 1960 more than twenty-six hundred people made their living by farming, a number that dropped to two hundred by 1980.
A varied and impressive group of Mississippians have called Attala County home, including National Geographic writer Carolyn Bennett Patterson, artist L. V. Hull, folklorist Arthur Palmer Hudson, basketball star and Delta State University coach Margaret Wade, and blues musician Charlie Musselwhite. Celebrated author and civil rights activist James Meredith was born in Kosciusko in 1933. Meredith initiated the process of desegregation at the University of Mississippi, becoming the first African American student to attend the college in 1962. Actress and television personality Oprah Winfrey was born in Kosciusko in 1954 and remained there under the care of her grandmother until age six.
Between 1960 and 2010, Attala County’s population declined slightly from 21,355 to 19,564. Like other central Mississippi counties in the early twenty-first century, Attala County was mostly (56 percent) white.
- 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)