Copiah County is located in central Mississippi, just south of Hinds County. The Pearl River forms its eastern boundary, and several tributaries of Bayou Pierre traverse its northwestern region. Copiah County was established on 21 January 1823 from land ceded to the United States by the Choctaw Tribe and takes its name from a Choctaw word meaning “calling panther.” Hazlehurst, Copiah’s county seat, was named for local railroad engineer George Hazlehurst. Other sizable towns include Crystal Springs and Wesson. In the late nineteenth century the mineral springs at Brown Wells attracted visitors seeking its reputed medicinal benefits, and Lake Chautauqua was a popular recreational and religious destination in Copiah.
In 1830 Copiah County had far more free people (5,247) than slaves (1,754). By 1860, however, the county’s 7,965 slaves slightly outnumbered the free population of 7,433. Twenty years later, Copiah County’s population had grown dramatically to 27,552, making it one of the larger counties in the state. African Americans continued to outnumber whites by a small margin, and most of the county’s population lived on farms.
Both railroad construction and the rise of manufacturing in the county contributed to Copiah’s increasing prosperity after the Civil War, an unusual combination for Mississippi. Industrialist James Wesson established a mill village, with several large and impressive buildings, in an attempt to re-create his earlier successes in Bankston and in his native state of Georgia. In 1880 Copiah County firms had more than one million dollars invested in manufacturing, by far the largest such investment in any Mississippi county and almost a quarter of the state’s total industrial assets. The county’s 659 nonagricultural workers also topped the state, and its 232 women employed in manufacturing comprised more than half of the state’s female industrial workforce.
Copiah’s population continued to grow in the early twentieth century, exceeding thirty-four thousand in 1900, and the county remained central to the state’s industrial economy. Its 137 industrial establishments and 1,287 industrial workers (roughly half of them women and children) ranked among the highest in Mississippi. Nevertheless, most of Copiah’s citizens worked on farms. The distinction between the county’s white and black farmers was clear: 61 percent of white farmers owned their land, compared to 18 percent of African American farmers.
Like many parts of Mississippi, Copiah was a Baptist county. In 1916 more than 9,000 of the county’s 13,800 church members identified as congregants of either the Southern Baptist Convention or the Missionary Baptists. Other denominations with significant membership included the Methodists and Presbyterians. Hazlehurst was the home of W. S. Pleasant, an early leader of the Church of God in Christ.
Blues legend Robert Johnson was born in Copiah County in 1911, although he is frequently more associated with the Mississippi Delta. Tommy Johnson and his blues-playing brothers likewise grew up in Copiah. Susie Powell started several of Mississippi’s first canning clubs in Copiah County in 1911.
In 1930, 92 percent of Copiah’s African American farmers and 58 percent of white farmers were tenants. The county’s population was almost evenly split between white and black residents. Copiah retained its larger-than-average industrial workforce, which was now supported by four canneries, a cottonseed oil mill, and several sawmills.
By 1960 Copiah County’s population had decreased to 27,051, with African Americans comprising 52 percent of the total. The number of agricultural laborers subsequently declined by nearly 90 percent, from 2,120 workers in 1960 to 270 in 1980. However, Copiah’s economy continued to rely on livestock, and in 1980 the county had the state’s fourth-largest cattle population. Copiah also contained a significant amount of commercial forest acreage, and almost half of its manufacturing workforce was involved in lumber or furniture production. Manufacturing, primarily work in textiles, employed the largest number of women.
Celebrated Copiah County natives include civil rights activist A. M. E. Logan, who was born in Myles; artists Mary T. Smith and Luster Willis; and Judge Burnita Shelton Matthews. Jackson-born playwright Beth Henley set her play and movie Crimes of the Heart in Hazlehurst. The county is also home to Copiah-Lincoln Junior College, founded in 1928 in Wesson. Copiah is well known as the Tomato Capital of the World, and it holds annual festivities to celebrate this agricultural heritage.
Copiah County’s population has increased only slightly since 1960, reaching 29,449 in 2010. African Americans continued to make up slightly more than half the population, and a small Latino/Hispanic minority had emerged.
- Copiah County, Mississippi Genealogy and History website, www.copiah.msgenweb.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)