Known to many as the county where Elvis Presley grew up and made his first music, Lee County in northeastern Mississippi has a long history of events central to story of the state. In one legend explaining the story of the Chickasaw, members of the tribe wandered from far in the West and chose to settle in “old fields” west of what became Tupelo. The area became a main location for the Chickasaw, and the crucial 1736 Battle of Ackia took place there. The county seat is Tupelo, while other communities include Plantersville, Saltillo, Shannon, Baldwyn, and Verona.
As part of Itawamba and Pontotoc Counties, the area became a growing farming area in the 1830s after the removal of most Chickasaw. Civil War military forces moved through the area in 1862, prior to the Battle of Iuka, and returned in 1864 as part of movements that led to the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads near Baldwyn.
Lee County was formed during Reconstruction and was named after Robert E. Lee. It was from the start a sizable county, with a population of 15,955 in its first census in 1870 and 20,470 in 1880. About a third of its population was African American, and in 1880 Lee had about 100 people born outside the country, most of them from Ireland. Owners cultivated 61 percent of the county’s farms, practicing mixed agriculture with grains, cotton, and livestock. The county particularly concentrated on the production of butter (ranking third in the state) and orchard products (eighth). Northeastern Mississippi has a reputation as an area for yeoman farmers, but by 1880 Tupelo already had thirty-seven manufacturing establishments, employing sixty-two workers.
In 1900 Lee’s population remained steady at 21,956, with whites accounting for about 60 percent of residents and African Americans for the remainder. It remained an agricultural county, with thirty-five hundred farms. Forty-four percent of all white farmers owned the land they farmed, while only 9 percent of the African American farmers did so. Industry continued to increase in importance, and by 1900, 175 industrial workers, all but 9 of them men, were employed at seventy-five firms. Lee County was home to fifty-seven immigrants, most of them from Ireland and Germany.
In the 1916 religious census the churches of Lee County, as in much of Mississippi, were mostly Methodist and Baptist. The leading denominations were the Missionary Baptists; the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church; and the Southern Baptists; with smaller but substantial numbers in the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church.
By 1930 Lee County’s population had grown to 35,313 and was just over two-thirds white. Tenants worked more than 70 percent of the county’s 5,289 farms. Lee County was home to thirty-two manufacturing establishments with more than nine hundred workers, many of them women employed in garment factories, and Tupelo had grown to more than six thousand people, making Lee one Mississippi’s more densely populated counties.
Lee County’s most famous resident was Elvis Aron Presley, born in 1935. Before he moved with his parents to Memphis in 1948, the young Presley sang in an Assemblies of God church, performed at the local fair, and had some experience with the county’s African American population. The small shotgun house where he was born is now a major tourist attraction. Other creative individuals from Lee County include fiddler Hoyt Ming, Lawrence Welk show singer Guy Hovis, and Sweet Potato Queen author Jill Connor Browne. Internationally acclaimed painter Sam Gilliam was born in Tupelo in 1933.
The New Deal brought a new and important series of relationships between the federal government and Lee County. Tupelo became famous in 1934 as the first city to receive power through the Tennessee Valley Authority. That year, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the city for the opening of the Tupelo Homesteads, a twenty-five-building planned community for people displaced from their homes by the economic changes of the Great Depression. The buildings are now connected to the Tupelo’s welcome center for the Natchez Trace Parkway.
In the 1930s George McLean bought the Tupelo Journal and started a campaign for economic and community development that involved improved education, new industry that would pay wages that were high by Mississippi standards, and greater cooperation between rural and urban areas. Those points later became central to the concept of the Tupelo Miracle, a period of economic and educational improvement.
By 1960 Lee’s population had topped forty thousand and the county ranked in the state’s top ten in population and population density. Lee had the fourth-highest number of industrial workers in Mississippi, with more than twelve hundred women and four hundred men working in the apparel industry and many others working in food and furniture industries. About 15 percent of the county’s workers were employed in agriculture, primarily producing soybeans and corn and raising cattle. Population growth continued, and by 1980 Lee County had 57,061 residents; two decades later, the population had boomed to 75,755.
Recent developments in Lee County include the growth of a tourist industry related to Elvis Presley and the increasing influence of the Tupelo-based American Family Association, a group that supports conservative religious causes.
Like many counties in northeastern Mississippi, in 2010 Lee County had a significant white majority, an African American minority, and a small but growing Hispanic/Latino community. Lee County nearly doubled between 1960 and 2010, and its population of 82,910 made it one of the state’s largest counties. In addition, it had Mississippi’s fourth-highest per capita income.
- 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)