Coahoma County is located in the northern Delta, with the Mississippi River shaping much of the county’s winding western border. Founded on 9 February 1836 from land ceded to the United States by the Choctaw Nation in 1830, the county derives its name from a Choctaw term meaning “red panther.” Clarksdale, the county seat and Coahoma’s largest city, is named for John Clark, a Coahoma resident and brother-in-law of Mississippi governor and senator James Alcorn.
Coahoma County remained a sparsely settled frontier until late in the antebellum period, with only 766 whites and 524 slaves in the 1840 census, numbers that grew to 1,521 and 5,083, respectively, in 1860. With slaves comprising 77 percent of Coahoma’s population, the county had one of Mississippi’s highest slave majorities on the eve of the Civil War. In addition, only about a quarter of the county’s farmland was improved, half the statewide cultivation rate. The county ranked thirty-second among Mississippi jurisdictions in the production of cotton, forty-third in livestock, and forty-sixth in corn. Coahoma had no one employed in commerce or manufacturing. With the fourteenth-highest farm property value, however, the county had great agricultural potential.
In 1880 African Americans comprised 82 percent of the county’s population of 13,568. Unlike many Delta counties, Coahoma had a substantial landowning population. The county’s farmers owned more than half of Coahoma’s farms, while sharecroppers accounted for less than 20 percent of the agricultural workforce. The average farm in Coahoma was 357 acres, among the largest in the state. The county remained predominantly agricultural, with only three manufacturing firms employing fifty-six men and four children.
By the turn of the century, the county showed evidence of dramatic regional transitions. Large numbers of African Americans moved to the Delta in search of land and employment, nearly doubling Coahoma’s population over the last two decades of the nineteenth century and ranking the county fourth in Mississippi in population density. By 1900 the county had more than twenty-six thousand residents, the overwhelming majority of them African American. The average farm in Coahoma County had shrunk to just forty-eight acres, a startling decline in just a generation. This decline was typical of the region, where plantations were being partitioned into small farms for tenants and sharecroppers. Coahoma County had more than twenty-six hundred sharecropping households, the second-highest figure in the state, while the number of landowners had dropped: only 235 of the 3,797 African American farming households (6 percent) could claim ownership. By contrast, almost half of the county’s 258 white farmers owned their land. The development of the timber industry also produced a sudden increase in industrial employment. In 1900 Coahoma’s 78 manufacturing firms employed 475 workers, all of them men. Finally, the county’s developing economy attracted a significant immigrant contingent. In the opening decade of the twentieth century, Coahoma had a significant number of residents from Russia, China, Germany, Italy, Palestine, Syria, and Poland, the great majority of them male.
Though only thirteen churches, most of them Methodist, had served the county’s people in 1860, by 1916 Coahoma’s religious infrastructure reflected the choices of the county’s black majority. More than sixteen thousand of Coahoma’s twenty-one thousand congregants attended Missionary Baptist churches, and another twenty-two hundred were members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church had significant memberships. In addition, the county was home to more Catholics (314) than Southern Baptists (286).
Early twentieth-century Coahoma County was the second home of playwright Tennessee Williams, who based many of his works on scenes in and around Clarksdale. Feminist editor Minnie Brewer also grew up in Clarksdale, and scientist Elizabeth Lee Hazen was born in Rich and grew up in Lula. Charlie Conerly, a football star for the University of Mississippi and the New York Giants, was born in Clarksdale in 1921.
In 1930 Coahoma had a population of 46,237, the fifth-highest in Mississippi. As the Great Depression set in, an exceptionally large percentage of the county’s land was cultivated. The county continued to suffer from low rates of landownership, as 94 percent of all farmers were tenants or sharecroppers. Like many Delta counties, Coahoma experienced a substantial influx of Mexican farm laborers during the 1920s and 1930s. Although the county continued to support a substantial industrial workforce, with 462 industrial workers, this sector had not grown over the previous three decades.
Coahoma County occupies a crucial place in the history of the blues, and Clarksdale is the site of the Delta Blues Museum as well as the annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival and the Juke Joint Festival. Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) grew up in Coahoma County. Son House was born in Riverton, near Clarksdale, and John Lee Hooker was born in Vance. Willie Brown, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, and Big Jack Johnson are just a few of the other important musicians associated with Coahoma County. Many more spent time in Clarksdale, often at the Riverside Hotel, as part of their travels, and the hotel is where Bessie Smith died. Charley Patton, Son House, Louise Johnson, and Bertha Lee Pate lived in Lula for a time. When folklorists Alan Lomax and John Work began documenting the Delta blues in the 1930s, Coahoma County was a principal locality for their study. Much-loved blues disc jockey Early Wright worked for years for Clarksdale’s WROX. And according to a popular blues legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical genius at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49.
Coahoma was central to other important movements in Mississippi. The county was home to the state’s first African American agricultural high school and for a time to Mississippi’s only community college for African Americans. Oscar Johnston, a banker and planter who became the president of Delta Pine and Land Company and a leader in American agricultural policy in the 1930s, lived in Clarksdale. Clarksdale native Blanche Montgomery Ralston edited the Mississippi Woman’s Magazine for the Mississippi Federation of Women’s Clubs before working with Johnston and others to form the Delta Council in the 1930s.
Aaron Henry, a political organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a longtime civil rights activist, worked as a pharmacist in Clarksdale. Dr. T. R. M. Howard ran the Regional Council of Negro Leadership from Mound Bayou. Unita Blackwell, famous for her work farther south in Issaquena County, was born in Lula. Activist and author Vera Pigee worked for the NAACP in Coahoma from the 1950s through the 1970s. Author and Ebony editor Lerone Bennett, whose political activism manifested in such works as Confrontation: Black and White, The Negro Mood, and Black Power USA, grew up in Clarksdale.
Coahoma’s population demographics changed little over the three decades following the Great Depression: in 1960 the county was home to 46,212 residents, 68 percent of them African American. The majority of Coahoma’s workforce was employed in agriculture, focusing on cotton, wheat, oats, and soybean production. Although the number of agricultural workers had declined significantly by 1980, Coahoma still ranked fifth in the state in the number of people employed in farming. Coahoma’s manufacturing sector was based largely on food processing and fabricated metal, with a significant number of laborers also involved in retail. More than a third of Coahoma’s population had less than five years of schooling, and Coahoma County ranked second in the state in amount of public assistance payments received. The county also possessed Mississippi’s third-largest Chinese American community.
Like many Delta counties in 2010, Coahoma County’s population of 26,151 was predominantly African American (76 percent) and had declined during the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, Coahoma County’s population showed one of the greatest proportional decreases in the state during this period, shrinking by 43 percent since 1960. Though the number of total inhabitants shrank between 1960 and 2010, the county’s proportion of African Americans increased, and its Latino population grew to about 300.
- Coahoma County Mississippi Genealogy and History Network website, http://Coahoma.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)