Founded in 1833 and named for Col. James Lauderdale, a US military officer killed during the War of 1812, Lauderdale County is located in eastern Mississippi, on the Alabama border. The Choctaw traditionally inhabited the area that now makes up the county; the United States took possession of the land under the terms of the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Home of Meridian, a large and active railroad city that serves as the county seat, Lauderdale County may be best known as the home of country musician Jimmie Rodgers. Other towns in the county include Marion and Russell. Okatibbee Lake is located within the county, as is Meridian Naval Air Station.
In its first census in 1840, Lauderdale’s population consisted of 4,005 free people and 1,353 slaves (25 percent). By 1860 the free population had grown to 8,225, while the county had 5,088 slaves (38 percent). The county’s farms and plantations practiced mixed agriculture, growing cotton and corn and raising livestock. Lauderdale ranked in the top ten of the state’s counties in growing rice and sweet potatoes. The county’s businesses employed 1,000 industrial workers, most of them at lumber mills. In 1860 Lauderdale County had thirty-one churches—seventeen Baptist, twelve Methodist, and two Presbyterian. In February 1864 Union forces led by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman entered Meridian, destroying property and railroad infrastructure.
By 1880 the population had increased, primarily because the number of African Americans had more than doubled to account for 54 percent of the county’s 21,501 people. Lauderdale County farmers continued to practice mixed agriculture, growing cotton, grains, rice, and sweet potatoes as well as raising livestock.
In 1888 the National Farmers’ Alliance held its first meeting in Mississippi in Meridian. The Daughters of the Confederacy first gathered in Meridian in 1893, the year before the national United Daughters of the Confederacy formed. In 1897 the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association formed in Meridian, with Nellie Nugent Somerville and Belle Kearney serving as its first officers.
With the growing city of Meridian, Lauderdale County stood out as unique in its number of industrial establishments and workers. In 1880 it ranked fourth in the state in industrial production, with forty-three manufacturing firms and 373 industrial workers, including 18 women and 11 children. With the exception of the Gulf Coast counties, Lauderdale also had a higher number of immigrants than most of Mississippi, with 203 foreign-born residents, mostly from Ireland and Germany. In 1870 one of those immigrants, Felix Weidmann, opened a restaurant that continues to serve customers today.
By 1900 Lauderdale County had grown dramatically. Its population of 38,150 ranked fifth in the state. African Americans and whites each made up about half of the population, and Lauderdale had more immigrants and residents born to immigrant parents than most Mississippi counties. In 1900 Lauderdale led the state in the number of manufacturing establishments (194) and the number of industrial workers (1,639, more than 1,400 of them men), and it ranked second only to Jackson County in the amount of capital invested in industry. About two-thirds of white farming families owned their land, twice the rate for black farming families. Missionary Baptists and Southern Baptists made up about half of all churchgoers, with various groups of Methodists and Presbyterians constituting most of the rest.
Transportation was key to Meridian’s growth and character. Jimmie Rodgers’s first nickname was the Singing Brakeman because of his experience on trains. The son of a railroad worker, Rodgers, born in Meridian in 1897, worked on and then sang about trains and eventually took on the persona of the rambler who always dreamed of home. Meridian became the home of Mississippi air transportation in 1935, when an impressive stunt by pilots Al and Fred Key inspired the building of Mississippi’s first airport, Key Field. Four years later, the Mississippi National Guard organized an air squadron at the site, and during World War II the army had a pilot training program at Key Field.
By 1930 Lauderdale’s population had grown to 52,748 and was about 60 percent white. Lauderdale was more densely populated than most other counties, and Meridian was the state’s largest city. The county’s 65 manufacturing establishments employed 1,674 workers. The county had substantial ethnic diversity, with numerous residents from Palestine and Syria, Russia, Iceland, England, and Greece.
Lauderdale’s population continued to grow in the mid-twentieth century, and by 1960 the county was home to 67,119 people, about two-thirds of them whites. Lauderdale County was also home to 15 Native Americans. The county ranked in the top five in the state in population, population density, per capita income, and the percentage of the population with a high school education. About 18 percent of Lauderdale’s workforce had jobs in industry, primarily furniture, food, apparel, and textiles, and a large number of people worked in hospitals. The county no longer had an agricultural economy: only 4 percent of its workers were employed in agriculture, primarily growing corn and raising livestock. More than 2,800 people, most of them women, were employed in personal service.
Organized civil rights efforts in Lauderdale County began with Charles R. Darden of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who became the organization’s state president in 1955 and led school desegregation efforts in Meridian. In 1961 Meridian native Clarie Collins Harvey organized Womanpower Unlimited in Jackson and led and participated in numerous other organized campaigns. In 1963 Congress of Racial Equality activist James Chaney worked with Michael and Rita Schwerner to set up community centers in Meridian; in 1964 Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and fellow activist Andrew Goodman were murdered in Neshoba County. In the summer of 1964 a Freedom Schools convention met in Meridian.
Other notable people from Lauderdale County include many in creative professions. Novelist Edwin Granberry and Barry Hannah were born in Meridian, though Granberry grew up in Florida and Hannah was raised in Clinton. Actresses Diane Ladd, born in 1932, and Sela Ward, born in 1956, grew up in Meridian. Architect Samuel Mockbee grew up in Meridian and became a leading force in new architectural design to address the needs of low-income people. Musician Pat Sansone, best known for his work as a member of the band Wilco, is from Meridian.
Lauderdale’s population spiked between 1960 to 2010, growing by nearly ten thousand in the 1970s alone. In 2010 the county’s population was 80,261, of which 54 percent were white, 43 percent were African American, and the remaining 3 percent were primarily Asian or American Indian.
- 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)