Holmes County, created in 1833 from part of Yazoo County and located in central Mississippi, was named for former governor David Holmes. Notable features in Holmes County include Tchula Lake and the Hillside National Wildlife Refuge, Mathews Brake National Wildlife Refuge, Morgan Brake National Wildlife Refuge, and Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge. The county is also home to Holmes County State Park. The county seat is Lexington, and other towns include Durant, Goodman, and Pickens.
In 1840 the county had a population of 5,566 slaves and 3,886 free people. By 1860 the slave population had grown to 11,975, more than twice the free population of 5,816. The county was a leading producer of cotton (ninth among counties in the state), was sixth in the value of its livestock, and ranked twelfth in growing corn. In 1860 only 41 residents worked in manufacturing. Of the fourteen churches in Holmes in 1840, eight were Methodist, three were Presbyterian, two were Baptist, and one was Episcopalian.
Holmes County grew rapidly in the postbellum period, as numerous migrants came to farm the rich Delta land. The African American population almost doubled to 20,233 in 1880, while the white population grew by only 1,000. But population expansion did not mean the growth of farm-owning prosperity—almost half of Holmes County’s farmers worked as sharecroppers, and the county had only 45 industrial workers.
By 1900 Holmes had a population of 36,838, including more than 28,000 African Americans. The area remained agricultural, with more than 5,000 farms. Whereas 57 percent of the 1,000 white farmers owned their own land, only 12 percent of African American farmers did so, meaning that the county had more than 3,400 black tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Holmes County employed 214 industrial workers, all but 4 of them men. Durant was home to an active Colored Farmers’ Alliance, and the county’s superintendent of schools, William Hall Smith, started Mississippi’s first Corn Clubs, the precursors to 4-H Clubs. The Order of the Eastern Star, a women’s Masonic organization, claimed Holmes County’s Eureka Masonic College (known as the Little Red Schoolhouse) as its birthplace. Edmond F. Noel, the thirty-seventh governor of Mississippi, was from Holmes County.
As in many counties with African American majorities, Missionary Baptists dominated the religious landscape, with more than three times as many as the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians who called the county home. Holmes County was also important in the history of the Church of God in Christ, a holiness group. In 1897 minister and denominational founder Charles Hamilton Mason led a Lexington revival that formed the basis for the group’s first church. In the 1920s Illinois native Arenia Mallory moved to Holmes County, where she founded Saints Industrial and Literary School as a Church of God institution; she served as its principal for more than fifty years. In the 1930s the Mississippi Health Project, a program originated by the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, began at the Saints school.
From 1900 to 1930 the population changed very little, although the rate of farm ownership decreased, so that 89 percent of African American farmers and 64 percent of white farmers were now tenants or sharecroppers. The industrial population grew to 639, although the county remained primarily agricultural. Two experimental agricultural communities, Providence Farm and Mileston, began in the late 1930s and 1940s to address farmworkers’ problems. Providence Farm included a substantial Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.
Holmes County was the birthplace to several scholars interested in the history and culture of Mississippi and the South. John A. Lomax was born near Goodman in 1867 before moving to Texas. Lomax was a folklorist and musicologist famous for collecting American music, including the music of rural African Americans. Historian David Herbert Donald, known for his scholarship on Abraham Lincoln, was also born in Goodman. Tchula native Chalmers Archer Jr., an author and educator born in 1938, described his upbringing in Growing Up Black in Rural Mississippi. Other notable natives of Holmes County include blues musicians Lester Davenport, Jimmy Dawkins, and Lonnie Pitchford as well as Monroe Saffold Jr., who won the Amateur Athletic Union’s US masters’-level bodybuilding championship in 1990.
By 1960 Holmes County’s population had decreased to 27,096, with African Americans holding a 71 percent majority. Almost half of the 1960 workforce was still involved in the agricultural production of cotton, soybeans, oats, and livestock, but agricultural employment dropped to less than 8 percent by 1980. In that year Holmes had a small but growing manufacturing sector that concentrated on furniture and apparel.
The Holmes County civil rights movement grew in part from organized community efforts at Mileston. Beginning in 1963 a group of local activists including Hartman Turnbow joined with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizers to make sustained efforts to register African Americans to vote. Just four years later, Holmes County schoolteacher Robert Clark became the first African American elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives since Reconstruction. Hazel Brannon Smith, the white editor of the Durant News and Lexington Advertiser, never officially joined the movement but consistently wrote articles condemning racial violence. In 1964 Smith became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.
As in many Delta counties in Mississippi, Holmes County’s population was predominantly African American and decreased overall during the last half of the twentieth century. The 2010 population of 19,198 represented a drop of 29 percent (7,898) since 1960 and was 83.4 percent African American and 15.6 percent white. In recent years Holmes County has consistently had one of Mississippi’s highest poverty rates, topping 40 percent.
- 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)