Located in south-central Mississippi and founded in 1814, Lawrence County is named after naval officer James Lawrence, known for his famous last words, “Don’t give up the ship!” during a battle during the War of 1812. The two primary towns in Lawrence County are the county seat, Monticello, and New Hebron. In the 1820 census, Lawrence had 3,925 free people and 991 slaves. Seventy people worked in commerce and manufacturing, ranking Lawrence fourth among Mississippi’s seventeen counties.
In 1840 the county still had a majority of free people, but the ratio had narrowed, with 3,648 free people and 2,272 slaves. Monticello, which had once briefly served as the capital of the Mississippi Territory, was a steamboat stop on the Pearl River, and Lawrence County had ten sawmills, as many as any county in Mississippi. Farmer Charles Lynch became a judge and then a state senator; in 1835 he became the state’s governor.
By 1860 Lawrence County was home to 5,517 free people and 3,696 slaves. The county’s farms and plantations grew a mixture of products, including cotton, corn, and other food crops. Yet Lawrence farmers concentrated more heavily on livestock than did their counterparts in other counties. The county’s businesses employed 45 industrial workers, most of them in lumber mills. Lawrence had twenty churches: fourteen Baptist and six Methodist. Among the county’s most noted natives, historian Franklin Riley was born in Lawrence County in 1868.
In 1880 Lawrence continued to have a fairly small population of 9,420, with a small increase in both the African American and white populations. Lawrence had 1,256 farms, 906 of them cultivated by their owners. The county’s farmers grew less cotton than most of the state, concentrating instead on livestock as well as corn and other grains, including rice. Lawrence County ranked third in Mississippi in the production of rice. Industry remained small, with only fourteen firms.
Between 1880 and 1900 the county’s population increased by a third, to 15,103. For the first time, African Americans made up half of Lawrence’s population. Industry was growing, but it remained small, with forty-three companies employing 77 workers. Slightly more than half of all farmers owned their own land, with more whites and fewer blacks owning their farms.
In 1916 five-sixths of all the county’s churchgoers were Baptists, either in the Southern Baptist Convention or the National Baptist Convention. Most of the remaining church members were Methodists.
Lawrence’s population began to decrease in the early twentieth century. In 1930 the county was home to 12,471 people, 62 percent of them whites. Even by Mississippi standards, Lawrence was sparsely populated, and agriculture remained the county’s primary economic activity.
Religious leader and activist John Perkins was born in New Hebron in 1930. Perkins said the killing of his brother, Clyde, by a New Hebron official led him to leave the state, though he later returned to take up a ministry of action and reconciliation as founder of Voice of Calvary Ministry. Thomas Jefferson Young, author of the successful novel A Good Man, grew up in Oma and returned there in retirement. Earl W. Bascom, the Father of Modern Rodeo, worked on the Hickman Ranch in Arm. Educator Rod Paige, secretary of education in the George H. W. Bush administration, was born in Monticello in 1933.
By 1960 Lawrence County’s population had declined to just over 10,000 people. About a quarter of the county’s workers were employed in agriculture, emphasizing corn, soybeans, and livestock, while 29 percent of its workers had jobs in industry, especially furniture, timber, and apparel. From 1960 to 1980 the population increased slightly to 12,518.
Lawrence County’s population grew to 13,258 in 2000 but dropped to 12,292 over he next decade. Like many counties in southern Mississippi, Lawrence County’s 2010 population was predominantly white, with a substantial number of African Americans and a small but significant Hispanic/Latino minority.
- 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)