With the Mississippi River and Arkansas border forming its western edge, Bolivar County lies in the heart of the Delta. The county was established on 9 February 1836 from lands ceded to United States by the Choctaw Nation in 1830. The county is named for Simón Bolívar, a Spanish general celebrated for his contributions to independence movements in Central and South America. Bolivar possesses two county seats, Cleveland and Rosedale.
In its early years, Bolivar County had an almost entirely agricultural economy. In its first census in 1840, 838 people worked in agriculture, while only 5 were employed in manufacturing and commerce. In that year the county’s population consisted of 384 free whites, 1 free black, and 971 slaves. By 1860 Bolivar’s 9,078 slaves constituted 87 percent of the population, the fourth-highest ratio of slaves to free people in Mississippi.
Delta farmland was astonishingly valuable: on the eve of the Civil War Bolivar County had the second-highest land value in Mississippi. Despite its small population, the county ranked fourteenth in the state in cotton production. However, Bolivar ranked much lower in corn production (thirty-first) and in the value of its livestock (twenty-ninth). In 1860 Bolivar County employed only one person, a carriage maker, in manufacturing.
Postbellum Bolivar had a relatively small number of farms, but they, like many agricultural establishments in the Delta, were among the state’s largest. Bolivar’s nonagricultural economic sector remained relatively undeveloped, as the county’s twenty manufacturing firms employed only fifty-one men in 1880.
In 1887 Isaiah T. Montgomery, Joshua P. T. Montgomery, and Benjamin T. Green formed the town of Mound Bayou. An experiment in African American self-determination, Mound Bayou featured black mayors, banks, businesses, consumers, schools, and eventually a hospital. With much discussion about using Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee model, Mound Bayou earned the nickname the Jewel of the Delta.
Mound Bayou made Bolivar County a favored destination for African Americans interested in finding work, land, and a thriving African American economy and society. By 1880 Bolivar County was home to 15,958 African Americans and 2,694 whites. Leading Reconstruction-era politician Blanche Bruce, a former slave from Virginia, held several political positions and ran a newspaper in Bolivar County before serving as one of Mississippi’s US senators from 1875 to 1881.
The rush into the Delta continued in the late nineteenth century, and by 1900 Bolivar County had more than thirty-five thousand people, more than thirty-one thousand of them African Americans. But only 12 percent of Bolivar’s black farmers owned their own land, compared to 44 percent of the county’s white farmers. The partitioning of plantation farmland and shrinking lot acreage in Bolivar reflected a dramatic trend throughout the Mississippi Delta in the late 1800s. In 1880 the average farm in Bolivar was 311 acres, far larger than the state average. By 1900, with owners dividing land among growing numbers of tenants and sharecroppers, the county’s average farm size of 44 acres was among the lowest in the state.
The presence of Mound Bayou eventually helped to stimulate the development of small manufacturing firms. By the turn of the century, Bolivar County’s 117 manufacturing firms employed 383 workers, all of them male. Bolivar was also home to a small but significant portion of the Mississippi Delta’s growing immigrant population. In 1900 this population comprised 311 people and included some of the most sizable Italian (135 people) and Chinese (31 people) groups in the state.
With a small free population and a heavy concentration on agriculture, residents in antebellum Bolivar County did relatively little to develop a religious infrastructure. In 1860 the county had only five churches, all of them Methodist. By 1916, however, Bolivar was home to more than sixteen thousand Missionary Baptists, the largest concentration of the state’s leading religious denomination and more than two-thirds of Bolivar’s church members. The African Methodist Episcopal Church; the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; the Catholic Church; and the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church also had large memberships.
From 1900 to 1930 Bolivar County witnessed one of the most dramatic population increases in the state, doubling from around 35,000 to more than 71,000, all but 3,240 of whom lived in what were considered rural areas. As the Great Depression set in, Bolivar had the second-largest population and fourth-highest population density among Mississippi counties. Bolivar continued to maintain a significant African American majority. The county was also home to 314 Italians and 766 Russians, an uncommonly diverse population for rural Mississippi. Bolivar had more than thirteen thousand farms, but only 8.6 percent of farmers owned their land.
With the simultaneous presence of Mound Bayou and a large African American majority, it is no surprise that Bolivar County was the site of creative efforts both to organize African Americans and to address issues specific to residents of the Mississippi Delta. During the 1920s Bolivar County was home to seventeen chapters of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), one of the highest concentrations of such groups in the country. Founded by Marcus Garvey, the UNIA held up the goal of self-determination for all people of African descent. UNIA leader Adam Newson of Merigold was one of the state’s most prominent organizers. In 1936 the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and a group of activists working from a range of Christian, socialist, and integrationist perspectives established the Delta Cooperative Farm near Hillhouse. To address the area’s lack of medical care, the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority created the Mississippi Health Project in the 1930s.
Activist Amzie Moore moved to Bolivar County in 1935 and lived and worked there for the rest of his life. Moore provided an important link between early organizational efforts and the civil rights protests of the 1960s. Doctor and business leader T. R. M. Howard moved to Mound Bayou in the 1940s and in 1951 organized the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, one of Mississippi’s first homegrown civil rights organizations. Sam Block, an activist who worked a great deal in Greenwood, was born in Cleveland in 1939. The short-lived Mississippi Freedom Labor Union began among Bolivar’s cotton farmers in 1965.
Several important musicians and artists hail from Bolivar County, which is divided by the famed blues thoroughfare Highway 61. Henry Townsend grew up in Shelby, David “Honeyboy” Edwards was born in Shaw, and Jimmy Reid is also from Bolivar. In 1954 Pup and Lee McCarty started McCarty Pottery, a unique and lasting effort to create art from Mississippi mud. Milburne Crowe founded the Mound Bayou Historical Society to gather information and to share the area’s unique story. Editor and author Charles East was born in Shelby in 1924, and author Jack Butler was born in Alligator in 1944.
Delta State Teachers College was created by the legislature in 1924 and opened in Cleveland the following year. Although the school was located in a largely black county, it admitted only white students. In 1955 the school expanded, becoming Delta State College and developing a larger set of institutional goals; by 1974 it had become a university. The school began admitting African American students in 1967 and has subsequently worked in numerous ways to serve its larger community. Delta State’s notable sports figures include basketball star Lusia Harris and baseball coach Dave “Boo” Ferris, and the teams have been known as the Statesmen, Lady Statesmen, and more recently the Fighting Okra.
The Sillers family held considerable power in and beyond Bolivar County. Walter Sillers Jr., the son of a powerful state legislator, helped organize the Delta Council, a cotton planters’ organization that helped influence national agricultural policy for generations. Sillers served in the Mississippi House of Representatives for fifty years, representing cotton growers and opposing the state’s political system and efforts to integrate schools. His sister, Florence Sillers Ogden, wrote a conservative column in the Delta for years and helped organize the Women for Constitutional Government in Jackson in 1962.
In the mid-twentieth century, Bolivar County’s substantial population began to decline. In 1960 the county was home to 54,464 people, more than two-thirds of them African Americans. Bolivar was among the top five counties in Mississippi in the percentage of people with less than five years of schooling (37 percent). Although the county’s agricultural workforce declined by 89 percent from 1960 to 1980, Bolivar still had the most agricultural laborers of any county in the state throughout the 1980s. During this era Bolivar ranked second in cotton production and first in wheat and rice; in fact, almost half of the state’s rice came from Bolivar. Conversely, the county had relatively little livestock and low corn production. By Mississippi standards, Bolivar maintained a large international community, with more than a thousand people born outside the United States. About half of the county’s immigrants were from Italy, while the majority of the others hailed from China and Mexico.
In 2010 Bolivar County’s population of 34,145 remained predominantly African American. As in many Mississippi Delta counties, Bolivar’s population had declined since 1960, losing 20,319 people (37 percent) over the previous half century.
- Bolivar County, Mississippi Genealogy and History Network website, bolivar.msghn.org
- 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, mapserver.lib.virginia.edu
- E. Nolan Waller and Dani A. Smith, Growth Profiles of Mississippi’s Counties, 1960–1980 (1985)