The Mississippi Black Belt is part of a larger region, stretching from Virginia south to the Carolinas and west through the Deep South, defined by a majority African American population and a long history of cotton production. In 1936 sociologist Arthur Raper identified two hundred counties with majority-black populations from Virginia to Texas. Most of Mississippi’s counties are part of this broad region. The Mississippi Black Belt/Prairie, however, consists of parts of six counties (Chickasaw, Clay, Lowndes, Monroe, Noxubee, and Oktibbeha) along the state’s eastern boundary with Alabama, linked geologically and in many ways culturally to the larger Alabama Black Belt/Prairie that runs through central and eastern Alabama. The prairie is a crescent-shaped land feature about twenty-five miles wide, stretching from eastern south-central Alabama into northeastern Mississippi and ending in McNairy County in southern Tennessee. The fertile black soil lies atop decomposed limestone known as the Selma Chalk, the remnants of a prehistoric ocean floor. The prairie runs through ten Mississippi counties, but the ones closest to the Tennessee line are defined more by the northeastern hills than the prairie. The Black Belt/Prairie has interconnecting waterways that have promoted transportation, including connections to the port of Mobile, facilitating the marketing of the region’s agricultural goods. The Tombigbee River runs north-south and is the major waterway, with its tributaries the Tibbee, Line Houlka, Sun, Chewah, and Chuquatonchee Creeks providing ample water to the area. The Noxubee River and the Buttchatchee River are also notable waterways in the region.
The original inhabitants of the region were Native Americans in the Tombigbee River Valley. Archaeologists trace Paleo-Indian activity at the Hester Site, near Amory, to ten thousand years ago. The Bynum Mound and Village near Houston are other archaeological locations in the region that document early Native American activity. These early peoples settled along the river, hunting, gathering, and trading throughout the Southeast. Between 6500 and 2500 BC Indians settled in small migratory groups in the Black Prairie areas of the Tombigbee, developing cultures similar to those of other tribes in the Gulf Coast plain. By 2000 BC sites existed where the Eutaw Hills and Black Prairie converged. The Mississippian era (around AD 1500) saw corn and beans become standard dietary and farming items in the fertile valley. When settlements became too dense, the Black Prairie became depopulated. The British and French arrived and competed with the region’s Chickasaw and Choctaw. Indian names continue to mark the Black Belt/Prairie landscape. The town of Okolona takes its name from the Indian word for “much bent,” and Oktibbeha is a Chickasaw term meaning “ice there in creek.” Historian Dunbar Rowland observed in the 1925 that one Black Belt/Prairie county, Noxubee, was “rich in the dim remains of Indian civilization.”
The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit (1830) and the Treaty of Pontotoc (1832) opened Native American lands to white settlement, and the plantation system, with labor supplied by slaves, subsequently took root. In 1840 Chickasaw County had 2,148 free whites and 806 slaves, but by 1860 slaves accounted for 55 percent of the population. In Monroe County slaves comprised 60 percent of the 1860 population; in Lowndes County that number was 71 percent.
By 1860 the Black Belt/Prairie had become a major agricultural producer, raising corn, sweet potatoes, and fruit, but cotton was far and away the major crop. The presence of prairie grasses led the area to become a center for raising cattle, mules, and horses. Columbus developed into a prominent cultural center, with a distinctive architectural form, the Black Belt house—a Greek Revival house with more attenuated proportions and refined ornamentation than similar houses in other parts of the antebellum South. Slender columns defined the Black Belt house, which was typically a frame house rather than brick. Waverly, one of the area’s most spectacular antebellum houses, has been described as an “architectural extravaganza of elaborate ornamentation.”
Political leaders from the Black Belt/Prairie generally supported secession, and the area was the scene of raids and small skirmishes during the Civil War. Federal troops tried but failed to destroy the Mobile and Ohio Railroad lines in Chickasaw County. Columbus was home to Briarfield Arsenal, which produced gunpowder, handguns, and cannons. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest repelled several Union Army attempts to capture Columbus, resulting in the survival of many antebellum homes (and consequently an annual spring historic home pilgrimage in the twentieth century). When Union forces captured Jackson, the state government moved to Columbus. Both Union and Confederate casualties were brought to Columbus after the Battle of Shiloh, and thousands of soldiers are buried in the town’s Friendship Cemetery. Columbus’s women decorated Union and Confederate graves on 25 April 1866, which is often seen as the progenitor of Memorial Day. Okolona’s cemetery provides a final resting place for almost one thousand Confederate soldiers killed in Union raids in the region.
Reconstruction was divisive and violent in the Black Belt/Prairie. African American political leaders emerged, but the Ku Klux Klan was active, helping to end postwar reforms. Agricultural reformers had some strength in the region in the 1890s: among that group was Populist editor and politician Frank Burkitt, a Chickasaw County native. Railroads had come to the region before the war, but postwar rail companies expanded, including the Gulf, Mobile, and Northern; the Illinois Central; the Southern; and the Mobile and Ohio. All connected the region to outlying markets for its predominantly agricultural products.
The post–Civil War years saw the decline of the antebellum plantation system and the rise of tenant farming in the Black Belt/Prairie, as in other parts of the South. The region had low rates of farm ownership through the end of the tenant system in the mid-twentieth century, and freed slaves and their descendants formed the bulk of sharecroppers. Census records show the continuing dominance of African Americans in the region. Clay County’s 1880 population, for example, was 70 percent black, while African Americans accounted for 85 percent of Noxubee County’s population ten years later. Leading crops through the late nineteenth century were cotton, livestock, corn, wheat, hay, and tobacco, with the region among the state’s most productive agricultural areas.
Educational institutions subsequently emerged to promote cultural and economic development. The Agricultural and Mechanical College of the State of Mississippi (now Mississippi State University) opened in 1878 in Starkville (another leading cultural center of the Black Belt/Prairie). This land-grant college made key contributions to the farming industry in the region as well as in the rest of the state. The school began operating agricultural experiment stations in 1888, and its research and outreach activities promoted the modernization of agriculture in the early twentieth century. The Industrial Institute and College (now Mississippi University for Women) opened in 1884 in Columbus and represented the nation’s first state-supported college for women. Mary Holmes Seminary, a Presbyterian Church institution for African American women, opened in 1895 in Jackson, but after the school burned three years later, a new campus was constructed in West Point.
In the early twentieth century dairy farming and cattle raising became increasingly prominent. Fruit production also expanded: Chickasaw County boasted ten thousand fruit-bearing trees in 1919. By the 1930s many of the region’s counties were diversifying economically. Bryan Foods began operating in Clay County in 1936 and became one of the region’s most important industries. The Carter No. 1 Well near Amory had opened gas production in the Black Belt/Prairie in 1926. Mississippi: The Guide to the Magnolia State (1938) described the region as a mostly treeless landscape with rolling plateaus, “spotted with silos and cheese factories, cottonmills, dairy barns, and condensaries.” “For miles,” the volume said, “little is visible except herds of cattle and meadows of alfalfa and corn.” If the Delta in this era presented scenes of white cotton fields, the guide’s writers observed a different image in the Black Belt/Prairie, where “at harvest time when the grain turns gold the landscape is a monotone—a vast stretch of gold spreading to the horizon.” The guide identified economic diversity in the meatpacking plants, garment factories, dairy product enterprises, and the activities of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Still, the Great Depression and World War II led to loss of population in the region, including many African Americans. By 1960 two-thirds of Monroe County’s population was white, and although Noxubee County’s overall population had decreased, it remained 72 percent African American. By 1960 less than one-third of the Clay County workforce was involved in agriculture, a trend seen in other parts of the region as well. Small manufacturing companies provided more jobs than ever, although the textile and furniture plants that provided many post–World War II jobs had closed by the turn of the twenty-first century. The Black Belt/Prairie towns nonetheless grew in population between 1960 and 2010. The white proportion of the population increased to just over half the population by 2010.
One of the most important recent developments in the Black Belt/Prairie was the 1984 opening of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a project initiated in 1972 and costing $1.992 billion. This 234-mile waterway begins on Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee River and flows south to the Black Warrior–Tombigbee navigation system at Demopolis, Alabama, before traveling another 217 miles to Mobile Bay. Coal and timber are the most important commodities shipped, with a 2009 Troy University study suggesting a forty-three-million-dollar national economic impact since 1996, much of it in the Black Belt/Prairie. The waterway constituted the largest earth-moving project in world history and was controversial because of its cost.
Columbus Air Force Base has also brought economic vitality to the region, not only by training pilots but also by attracting aviation and aerospace businesses to the area, many of them served by the Golden Triangle Regional Airport, situated in Lowndes County between Columbus, Starkville, and West Point.
The Black Belt/Prairie identity is nurtured through stories in the region’s main communication sources, including WCBI television in Columbus and newspapers that include the Columbus Commercial Dispatch, the West Point Daily Times Leader, and the Starkville Daily News.
The Black Belt/Prairie has produced a thriving and nationally noted culture. Blues performers Bukka White (Chickasaw County) and Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” (Clay County) were born in the area in the early twentieth century: West Point has a museum dedicated to Wolf and since 1995 has hosted the Howlin’ Wolf Festival. Pop singer Bobbie Gentry was born in Chickasaw County, which figures in her song lyrics. Prominent late-twentieth-century African American journalist William Raspberry was from Okolona, and poet T. R. Hummer was born in Macon in 1950. Sports announcer Red Barber made his fame as an announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he was from Columbus and loved to tell stories about growing up there. Photographer Birney Imes has documented life in the region from the late twentieth century to the early twenty-first. While the region’s soils remain rich and agriculture is still important, much of the prairie land that originally characterized the region has been lost to agriculture, with less than 1 percent of open prairie habitat remaining. The region’s economic development, diversification, and population growth define it for the twenty-first century.
- Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, Mississippi: The WPA Guide to the Magnolia State (1938)
- Joe MacGown, Richard Brown, and JoVonn Hill, Mississippi Entomological Museum website, http://mississippientomologicalmuseum.org.msstate.edu
- Arthur F. Raper, Preface to Peasantry (1936)
- Dunbar Rowland, History of Mississippi: The Heart of the South (1925)
- University of Virginia Library, Historical Census Browser website, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu
- Ronald C. Wimberley and Libby V. Morris, The Southern Black Belt: A National Perspective (1997)