Site of the University of Mississippi and the home of William Faulkner and the subject of much of his work, Lafayette County has since the antebellum period been the educational and literary center of northern Mississippi.
Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, the county was founded in 1836, shortly after treaties forced most of the native Chickasaw population to leave Mississippi. In 1840 the new county had a population of 3,689 free people and 2,842 slaves. According to the census, 162 people worked in commerce and manufacturing. Thomas Dudley Isom, member of a firm that traded with the Chickasaw and later a medical doctor, suggested naming the local town Oxford as a way to attract the state university, which state officials began discussing in the 1840s. The strategy worked, and university was founded in 1844 and opened its doors for classes in 1848; the country’s fourth public law school opened there just nine years later. Southwestern humor author Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and noted scientist Frederick Augustus Barnard were among the school’s early chancellors.
By 1860 Lafayette County’s population had increased to 8,906 free people and 7,129 slaves. As in most of north-central Mississippi (east of the Delta but west of hillier country), the county’s farms and plantations concentrated on corn (ranking sixteenth among the state’s counties) rather than on cotton (twenty-fifth). The county was home to thirty-two churches: twelve Methodist, eight Baptist, six Presbyterian, five Cumberland Presbyterian, and one Episcopalian.
Part of Oxford was burned during the Civil War, and the University of Mississippi closed when most of its students left to join the Confederacy. In the 1880s the university recovered slowly. Sarah McGehee Isom became Mississippi’s first female university professor when she was hired to teach elocution in 1885. The state’s first medical school opened in Oxford as part of the University of Mississippi in 1903.
Lafayette County’s population continued to grow in the postbellum period, reaching 21,671 in 1880 and remaining evenly divided between African Americans and whites. Lafayette had 108 foreign-born residents (primarily from England, Ireland, and Germany), a higher number than most Mississippi counties. The county’s agriculture continued to mix cotton, corn, and livestock, and owners cultivated about 62 percent of the farms. Lafayette ranked eleventh among the state’s counties in number of mules: quipped Oxford’s most famous native, William Faulkner, whose stories relied on the county scenes and characters as background, “A mule will labor willingly and patiently for ten years for the privilege of kicking you once.”
Lafayette County grew little in the late 1800s. When Faulkner was born in 1897, the county’s population had grown by just five hundred since 1880. Industry employed 110 people, among them 8 women. Outside Oxford, in life as in Faulkner’s fiction, agriculture dominated. About half of all white farmers owned their land, compared to only about one-fifth of black farmers. Most African Americans made their living as sharecroppers and tenants. Southern and Missionary Baptists, Methodists (both Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and Colored Methodist Episcopal), and Presbyterians were the largest religious groups in the early twentieth century.
When Faulkner wrote his major works in the late 1920s and 1930s, Oxford had relatively few other artists, though his mother was a painter and his great-grandfather had been a novelist. Faulkner created a set of images, stories, and characters that continues to dominate thinking about Mississippi and the South. During his lifetime, the number of artists, writers, and other creative thinkers who lived in Oxford increased dramatically. Howard Odum, who went on to a career as a prominent sociologist, studied classics at the University of Mississippi and spent a great deal of time recording African American musicians. Arthur Palmer Hudson served as Lafayette County’s school superintendent before becoming a leading University of Mississippi folklorist. John Faulkner was a significant writer whose works for some time outsold those of his brother. In the visual arts, Theora Hamblett made paintings based on her dreams and observations, and Sulton Rogers, born in 1922, whittled wooden images of scenes from the Bible as well as from his nightmares. John McCrady made Lafayette County the subject of many of his greatest paintings. Political figure Ellen Woodward was born in Oxford, as was Arthur Guyton, professor of physiology and author of the major textbook in his field.
The county’s population remained steady at about twenty thousand in the early twentieth century. In 1930, 59 percent of the population was white, 41 percent was African American, and one person was identified as “other.” Still rural with a small population of factory workers, Lafayette County at the time of the Great Depression had an economy dominated by agricultural tenancy, with only one-third of farmers owning their land.
In 1960 Lafayette County was home to 21,355 people, of whom two-thirds were whites and one-third were African Americans. Agriculture remained the county’s primary employer, with corn, soybeans, livestock, and cotton the major crops. Education was the second-highest employer, and about 10 percent of laborers worked in manufacturing.
The University of Mississippi was still a small institution in 1962 when James Meredith applied to become the first African American to enroll. His attempt resulted in a riot in which two people died as well as in shame and negative publicity for the university. University figures who tried to open up the university to both African American students and to a broader spirit of criticism included history professor James Silver, whose 1964 book, Mississippi: The Closed Society, criticized policies of the university and more broadly the state. While some students and alumni embraced Confederate imagery, the university, starting in the 1970s, began making significant efforts to study the South as part of a broader set of improvements.
Beginning in the 1970s authors Willie Morris and Barry Hannah, who wrote while teaching at the University of Mississippi, and Larry Brown, an Oxford-born writer who lived in rural Tula, added to the town’s reputation as a place that valued creativity, especially on topics central to Mississippi life. Novelist Cynthia Shearer lived in Oxford for nineteen years, and Dean Faulkner Wells and her husband, Larry Wells, started Yoknapatawpha Press to publish southern writers. Less famous Lafayette County natives have included Naomi Sims, born in Oxford in 1948 and sometimes called the first African American supermodel, and Philip Cohran, an Oxford-born jazz musician who helped establish the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago. Notable athletes at the university have included football stars Archie Manning, Deuce McAllister, Eli Manning, and Michael Oher (subject of the 2007 book and Academy Award–winning 2009 movie, The Blind Side) and basketball stars Jennifer Gillom and Peggie Gillom-Granderson from the Lafayette County community of Abbeville. Major scholars in recent decades have included folklorist William Ferris, a Mississippi native who served as director of the university’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture from 1978 to 1998, and slavery historian Winthrop Jordan. In the 1990s Lafayette County’s Fat Possum record label began recording North Mississippi blues, often in innovative ways.
In 1980 Lafayette County’s population was 31,030; over the next thirty years, that number grew to more than 47,000. Like many counties in North Mississippi, Lafayette was predominantly white in 2010 (72 percent), with a sizable African American population (24 percent). In the twenty-first century the county was also home to small but growing Hispanic/Latino and Asian populations, each making up about 2 percent of county residents.
- Don H. Doyle, Faulkner’s County: The Historical Roots of Yoknapatawpha (2001)
- 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)