One of the counties organized during Reconstruction, Clay County in northeastern Mississippi was formed from parts of Chickasaw, Lowndes, Monroe, and Oktibbeha Counties. Originally named Colfax County for Schuyler Colfax, a Republican who served as vice president under Ulysses S. Grant, the county was established in May 1871. Following the end of Reconstruction and the return of Democratic ascendancy, the county was renamed after Henry Clay, secretary of state under John Quincy Adams. West Point, the county seat, was formerly a nexus of the Illinois Central, Mobile and Ohio, and Southern railways. The Tombigbee River shapes a long stretch of Clay’s eastern border.
At its first census in 1880, Clay was home to 17,367 residents, with African Americans comprising 70 percent of the population. Tenants and sharecroppers did most of the farming during this era, as owners operated only 43 percent of the county’s farms. Clay’s early agricultural economy was mixed, with farmers concentrating on grain, cotton, and livestock. Clay’s manufacturing sector remained nascent: twenty-four small companies employed only fifty-nine male workers. The county had a small foreign-born population, most of them Irish.
The average farm size in Clay County declined from 132 acres in 1880 to 70 acres in 1900. This development, a typical consequence of the increase in tenancy and sharecropping, had a far more pronounced impact on African American farmers. At the turn of the century, 62 percent of Clay County’s white farmers worked their own land, while only 11 percent of African American farmers did so.
Though Clay remained largely agricultural, by 1900 the town of West Point had grown to 4,400 people. Clay County’s 70 industrial establishments employed 228 workers, almost all of them men. The county’s foreign-born contingent had grown to 90 people and included Russians and Germans.
In 1916 West Point’s Payne Field, a training area for American troops during World War I, opened as Mississippi’s first airport. The county seat also served as an educational center for women in eastern Mississippi: in 1894 the Southern Women’s College moved to West Point from Oxford. A year later, the town became the site of Mary Holmes College, a Presbyterian school for African American women.
Clay County’s population remained steady in the early twentieth century. In 1930 African Americans made more than two-thirds of Clay’s population of 17,931. The county’s agricultural production was evenly divided among cotton, corn, and grain, and tenant farmers outnumbered landowners by about two to one. Fifteen manufacturing firms employed 185 people. Among these firms was Bryan Foods, a meat products manufacturer founded in Clay County in 1936 that remains in operation, billing itself as the Flavor of the South.
Blues musician Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett) was born in the Clay County community of White Station in 1910. Lenore Prather, the first woman to serve as the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, was born in West Point in 1931 and began her judicial career there in 1965. Clay County hosted the state’s first national golf championship in 1999 when the US Women’s Open was held at West Point’s Old Waverly Golf Club.
By 1960 Clay County was home to 18,933 people, 51.3 percent of them African Americans. Less than one-third of Clay’s workforce was employed in agriculture, which focused largely on the production of soybeans. Agriculture continued to decline, and by 1980 only 150 workers were employed in this economic sector. The majority of nonagricultural laborers worked in food production and fabricated metal; the county’s female workers were mostly employed in textiles or domestic labor.
The county’s 2010 population, 20,634, remained largely unchanged over the previous half century. However, the percentage of African Americans had risen to nearly 60 percent.
- Clay County, Mississippi, Genealogy and History Network website, http://clay.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, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu
- E. Nolan Waller and Dani A. Smith, Growth Profiles of Mississippi’s Counties, 1960–1980 (1985)