Located in the center of Mississippi, Leake County was founded in 1833 with a small population of free people and slaves. Named for antebellum governor Walter Leake, the county is located between Attala and Scott Counties to the north and south and Madison and Neshoba Counties to the west and east. A portion of the Natchez Trace Parkway runs through Leake County. The county seat is Carthage, and other towns include Edinburg, Thomastown, and Walnut Grove.
In 1840 Leake’s population consisted of 1,620 free people and 542 slaves. Twenty years later slaves made up a third of the county’s population, which had grown to 6,268 free people and 3,056 slaves. Leake’s farms and plantations practiced mixed agriculture, concentrating on both cash crops and food crops for home use. Leake had very few industrial laborers, with just nineteen people working in lumber mills and other small industries. Of Leake’s twenty-five churches in 1860, twelve were Baptist, ten were Methodist, and single Lutheran, Union, and Cumberland Presbyterian congregations existed.
In 1880 Leake remained an agricultural county. Its farmers practiced mixed agriculture, concentrating especially on dairy farming. The county ranked second in the state in the production of milk. The population was 13,146, including 8,104 whites, 4,660 African Americans, and 382 Choctaw—the second-highest number of Native Americans in the state.
By 1900 Leake County had a population of 17,360, of whom 6,231 were African American. Leake had little industrial growth, with just 69 men and no women or children working in manufacturing.
Leake County played a role in the rise of string band music in the early 1900s with the success of the Leake County Revelers and other groups. Carthage was the home of author Katherine Bellamann, born in 1877.
By 1930 Leake had 21,803 residents, with whites outnumbering African Americans by an almost two-to-one ratio and with 297 Choctaw. Still a completely rural county, Leake had almost four thousand farms, half of them operated by tenants.
Over the next three decades, Leake’s population declined to 18,660, with whites accounting for 56 percent of residents, African Americans for 41 percent, and Native Americans for 3 percent in 1960. Leake County had a large number of agricultural workers, employed primarily in raising corn and livestock; the 15 percent of its workers employed in manufacturing worked mostly in the apparel industry. Population figures remained steady until the twenty-first century.
Important figures in Mississippi’s civil rights history had roots in Leake County. Winson and Dovie Hudson grew up in Harmony and spent much of their lives working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to address issues of equal opportunity in voting and education. Ross Barnett, governor from 1961 to 1964 and one of the state’s most influential opponents of the civil rights movement, was born and raised in the Leake County community of Standing Pine.
Leake County has produced some very successful sports figures. Sue Gunter, born in 1939 in Walnut Grove, contributed to changes in women’s basketball, including its development as an Olympic sport and as a major part of college athletics. Deuce McAllister grew up in Lena and went on to excel at football for the University of Mississippi and the New Orleans Saints.
Leake County has been in the news in recent years, both as the center of Operation Pretense, an investigation of corruption among local governments that began in Carthage in the 1980s, and for the opening of a private juvenile prison in Walnut Grove in 2001.
From 2000 to 2010 Leake County’s population increased from 20,940 to 23,805. Like many central Mississippi counties, Leake County had a white majority, while African Americans made up 40 percent of the population and Choctaw accounted for 6 percent, making it one of the state’s most significant Native American minorities (along with neighboring Neshoba and Newton Counties). A small but significant Guatemalan and Mexican minority had also emerged in Leake.
- 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)