Located east of Jackson, along the Alabama-Mississippi border, Kemper County was founded on 23 December 1833. The Tombigbee River crosses Kemper in the east, and the Chickasawhay River wends its way through the county’s southern region. The lands now incorporated into Kemper were ceded to the United States by the Choctaw Tribe under the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. The county is named for Reuben, Nathan, and Samuel Kemper, a trio of brothers who fought under Gen. Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. De Kalb, the county’s seat, is named for Revolutionary War general Baron Johann de Kalb.
Kemper County emerged in the 1830s as a rapidly growing part of eastern Mississippi. In the 1840 census, the county reported 4,623 free people and 3,040 slaves; twenty years later the county’s population neared twelve thousand and was about half free and half slave. Kemper’s farms and plantations practiced mixed agriculture, concentrating on cotton, corn, sweet potatoes, and livestock. John J. Pettus, Mississippi’s governor during the Civil War, hailed from Kemper. Though no battles took place in the county, it was subject to a number of raids by US troops, and exceptionally high numbers of Kemper citizens fought as Confederate soldiers.
By 1880 Kemper had grown to 15,719 people, with African Americans slightly outnumbering whites. The county also had a small Native American population as well as forty-one foreign-born residents. Agriculture was typical of Mississippi in both the size of Kemper’s farms and the percentage of farm ownership. Industry was slow to develop in the county, and its twenty manufacturing establishments employed only twenty-nine men.
By the late nineteenth century the county was known as Bloody Kemper because of its high homicide rate during the Reconstruction era. The most notorious example of county’s postbellum hostilities was the Chisholm Massacre. Political conflicts between Democrats and Republicans led to the 1875 murder of Republican sheriff W. W. Chisholm, his family, and a number of African Americans. A mysterious series of murders in the 1890s by a Kemper County doctor helped to seal the county’s violent reputation.
In 1900 Kemper was home to 20,492 people, about half of them African American. Although Kemper remained primarily agricultural, it had forty-seven manufacturing establishments employing almost a hundred workers. Only a quarter of Kemper’s African American farmers owned their land, while more than two-thirds of white farmers did so.
On the eve of the Civil War, Kemper County had forty-two churches, the fifth-highest number in the state. Most were either Baptist or Methodist. By 1916 most of Kemper’s church members were Baptist, with those belonging to Missionary Baptist and Southern Baptist congregations comprising well over half of the county’s churchgoing population. Most of Kemper’s remaining congregants were either Methodist or Presbyterian.
By 1930 Kemper’s population had increased slightly to about twenty-two thousand, more than half of them African Americans. The county’s industrial sector had undergone significant expansion, employing almost a thousand workers. The largest industrial employer was the Sumter Lumber Company in Electric Mills, which was unique both for its tremendous size and for its use of electric rather than steam power. Only 37 percent of the county’s farmers owned their land as the Great Depression set in.
Over the next thirty years Kemper’s population decreased dramatically, falling to 12,277 in 1960. Kemper was home to a large Choctaw community. A majority of the labor force was employed in agriculture, with fewer than five hundred manufacturing workers, almost all of them in furniture production. Most of the county’s farmland was devoted to corn, cotton, cattle, and soybeans. Kemper was one of the poorest Mississippi counties throughout the 1980s and ranked last in the state in per capita income in both 1960 and 1970.
John C. Stennis was born in De Kalb in 1901 and went on to represent Mississippi in the US Senate from 1947 to 1989.
By 2010 Kemper’s population had declined to 10,456, and the county was one of very few in east-central Mississippi with an African American majority.
- Charles Ray Fulton, “A History of Kemper County, Mississippi, 1860–1910” (master’s thesis, Mississippi State University, 1968)
- Kemper County Historical Association, Kemper County: Sesquicentennial Celebration, 1833–1983 (1983)
- 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)