Claiborne County lies directly east of Tensas Parish, Louisiana, between Vicksburg and Natchez. The county is bordered on the west by the Mississippi River, and the Big Black River forms its northern boundary with Warren County. Bayou Pierre wends east across the county from its Mississippi River origins in southwestern Claiborne.
The county’s lands were home to the Natchez and Choctaw Indians prior to the arrival of Europeans. The French and then the Spanish occupied the area during the eighteenth century, before it was formally annexed by the United States in 1798. Claiborne officially became the Mississippi Territory’s fourth county on 27 January 1802. It is named for William C. Claiborne, the territory’s second governor.
In 1810 Claiborne’s population of 3,102 was almost evenly divided between slaves and whites. The potential for increased cotton production contributed to a rapid expansion of the slave population to 12,296 (the eighth-highest total in the state) by 1860, while the county’s white population leveled off and actually declined slightly to less than a third of the number of slaves.
Early on, the number of people employed in commerce and manufacturing was small—less than one-tenth of the county’s agricultural workforce. By 1840, however, Claiborne County ranked third in the state in the number of commercial and manufacturing laborers. The county’s largest nonagricultural employers included four lumber mills and two carriage manufacturers.
The county seat, Port Gibson, became a trading hub for white settlers, helping the county relatively quickly develop large-scale cotton cultivation. Thus, the plantation economy dominated antebellum Claiborne, and the county was home to some of the largest farms in Mississippi, with its 305 farms averaging more than four hundred acres of improved land. In 1860 it ranked fourteenth in the state in cotton production but only twenty-fourth in the production of corn.
Revivalist Lorenzo Dow, one of the state’s first ministers, built a cabin and began preaching near Port Gibson in 1807. The county was also home to Mississippi’s third governor, Walter Leake. A decade later, Presbyterian leaders founded Oakland College, one of the state’s first higher-education institutions. Later in the antebellum period, Port Gibson native and Oakland College alumnus Henry Hughes wrote Treatise on Sociology, Theoretical and Practical, a proslavery tome considered one the first important sociological works. Poet Irwin Russell, author of “Christmas Night in the Quarters,” was born in Port Gibson in 1853. The Windsor Ruins, the columns of one of the South’s largest Greek Revival mansions, still stand in Claiborne County, more than a century after a fire devastated the home.
In 1860 the county had fourteen established churches, with the Methodists and Presbyterians possessing both the largest congregations and the largest buildings. One of Mississippi’s earliest synagogues was built in Port Gibson in 1859. A year earlier, architect James Jones began construction on an elaborate replacement for the original First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson. This church, still standing, is known for its unusual steeple, which is crowned by a twelve-foot gold hand pointing skyward.
With the interests of the county’s entrenched plantation majority to defend, Claiborne’s white citizens staunchly supported the Confederate cause. Many residents suffered greatly during the war, enduring privation from Union raids, the loss of many soldiers, the repeated burning and bombardment of Great Gulf by US forces, and the Battle of Port Gibson, along with a number of smaller conflicts. When Union troops led by Ulysses S. Grant took Port Gibson as part of the 1863 Vicksburg Campaign, Grant proclaimed the town “too beautiful to burn.”
In the postbellum period, Claiborne County’s population remained stable, maintaining a substantial African American majority (77 percent of the county’s 16,768 people in 1880). By 1900 Claiborne’s population had topped 20,000. Significant Irish and German populations moved to the area in the late 1800s, and Syrian and Lebanese immigration began in the early 1900s. In spite of the port economy of its county seat, turn-of-the-century Claiborne County possessed only a small industrial population of about 200, and most residents still worked in agriculture. More than half of Claiborne’s 671 farming families owned their farms in 1900, compared to only 7 percent of the county’s 2,300 black farm families. Most African Americans were tenants or sharecroppers.
A 1916 religious census showed that about half of the church members in Claiborne County belonged to Missionary Baptist Conventions. The Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Southern Baptist Convention, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, and Episcopalians were other religious groups of significant size.
In 1930 African Americans made up about three-quarters of Claiborne’s population of 12,152. The county remained very rural, with no towns of more than 2,000 people and just 358 industrial laborers. Thirty years later the population remained almost unchanged, with about 11,000 people and African Americans still outnumbering whites three to one. However, in 1960 less than a third of its population worked in agriculture, with another third employed in manufacturing. A significant portion of Claiborne’s female laborers were employed as domestic workers. During the mid-twentieth century the county’s agriculture combined cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat, and livestock. Claiborne boasted the second-highest number of hogs in the state in 1960 and was the only county with more hogs than people.
In 1918 F. S. Wolcott established Port Gibson as the official home of the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, a traveling music group that included such celebrated performers as Rufus Thomas, Ma Rainey, and Louis Jordan. Olivia Valentine Hastings, one of the greatest proponents of education in Mississippi, grew up in Claiborne County. Author Berry Morgan was born in Port Gibson in 1919 and modeled the fictional Kings Town after his hometown. Pete Brown, who in 1964 became the first African American golfer to win a Professional Golfers’ Association of America event, was born in Port Gibson.
Claiborne County was the site of years of voter registration efforts, a sustained and effective civil rights boycott that ended in 1967, and leadership from Charles Evers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The county was also the home of significant civil rights opposition. Port Gibson native John Satterfield, a leading adversary of the movement, served as Gov. Ross Barnett’s lawyer and a lobbyist against civil rights legislation. A noteworthy case, NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., began in 1969 when white-owned businesses sued the NAACP and others for the economic harm caused by boycotts . The case spent more than eleven years winding its way through the judicial system until the US Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment prevented states from prohibiting peaceful political activity such as boycotts.
Like most counties along the Mississippi River, Claiborne County’s 2010 population was predominantly black—84 percent of its 9,604 citizens identified themselves as African American. The county’s overall population had declined by roughly 11 percent (1,241 people) over the previous half century.
Emilye Crosby, A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi (2005); Katy McCaleb Headley, Claiborne County, Mississippi: The Promised Land (1976); 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).