Located in eastern Mississippi on the Alabama border, Lowndes County was formed in 1830 out of a portion of Monroe County and was named after congressman William Lowndes. Columbus serves as the county seat. Artesia, Caledonia, and Mayhew are other towns in the county.
In its first census in 1830, Lowndes County had a small population of 2,109 free people and 1,065 slaves. It grew dramatically in the next decade and by 1840 had the state’s sixth-largest population. In 1840 Lowndes had 5,742 free people and a substantial slave majority of 8,771.
By 1860 Lowndes had Mississippi’s fourth-largest population, with 6,895 free persons and 16,730 slaves (71 percent). Lowndes was a prosperous agricultural area. Its farms and plantations grew the third-most corn and fourth-most cotton in Mississippi, and the county ranked twelfth in the value of its livestock. In addition, Lowndes County’s 335 industrial workers ranked fourth in the state. More than a hundred of those men were employed in blacksmithing, brickwork, lumber mill work, and carpentry—all jobs indicative of a growing area. Author Joseph Beckham Cobb, best known for Mississippi Scenes, lived in Columbus from 1844 until his death in 1858.
In 1860 Lowndes County had thirty-two churches, among them six Presbyterian churches and four Cumberland Presbyterian churches, giving the county more of a Presbyterian concentration than most of the rest of the state. It was also home to twelve Baptist, eight Methodist, and two Christian churches.
Columbus was an important site for Civil War leadership, transportation, production, and memory. Confederate generals William Barksdale, William Edwin Baldwin, and Jacob Hunter Sharp all spent considerable time in Lowndes County. As a railroad center, Columbus was the location of the Briarfield Arsenal, one of the major facilities supplying weapons to the Confederacy. Lowndes County was briefly home to the Mississippi legislature, which met in Columbus after Union forces took Jackson. In 1866 three women put flowers on the graves of numerous Confederate and Union soldiers at Columbus’s Friendship Cemetery, and it subsequently became known as the site of the first Decoration Day.
In 1870 Lowndes County had the second-highest population in the state. A decade later the population had grown to 28,244 despite the fact that a portion of the county became part of Clay County in 1872. African Americans made up a substantial majority of Lowndes’s population. Lowndes remained a very productive agricultural county: its farmers grew the third-most corn in the state, ranked fifteenth in cotton, and had the eighth-most mules. Lowndes, like many black-majority counties, had high rates of tenancy and low rates of farm owning. Landowners cultivated only 37 percent of the county’s farms, a figure well below the state average. While 505 of the 713 white farmers were owners (71 percent), only 195 of the 2,754 African American farmers owned their land (7 percent). The county’s manufacturing firms employed the fifth-most industrial workers in the state, and Lowndes had a particularly high number of foreign-born residents, many of them from Germany.
The Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls of the State of Mississippi, the nation’s first public university for women, opened in Columbus in 1884 after years of lobbying efforts led by educators Sallie Eola Reneau, Olivia Valentine Hastings, and Annie Coleman Peyton. Over the following century, changes in the name and mission of the school marked changes in Mississippi education. In 1920 it became the Mississippi State College for Women, reflecting the broad educational and curricular goals of the institution. In 1966 the college accepted its first black students, and in 1974 it became Mississippi University for Women. Eight years later, as a result of Hogan v. Mississippi University for Women, the school admitted its first men. Among the notable and dedicated faculty members have been Emma Ody Pohl, physical education professor from 1907 to 1955; literature professor Pauline Orr, who taught from the 1880s to 1913; and Bridget Smith Pieschel, an English professor who has served as director of the school’s Center for Women’s Research and Public Policy since 2005 and who helped to establish an oral history program to study Mississippi women. Alumnae of the institution include artists Valerie Jaudon and Eugenia Summer, home demonstration leader Dorothy Dickins, actress Ruth Ford, educator Blanche Colton Williams, scientist Elizabeth Lee Hazen, novelist Alice Walworth Graham, author, scholar, and editor Patti Carr Black, and legal figures Helen Carloss and Lenore Prather.
As in most of Mississippi, various groups of Baptists and Methodists made up the majority of Lowndes County’s church members in the early twentieth century. The largest groups were the Missionary Baptists; members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; and members of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Methodist Episcopal Church, Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, and Presbyterian Church of the United States also had substantial memberships.
Numerous creative individuals were born or grew up in Lowndes County. Thomas Williams III was born in 1911 in Columbus, where his grandfather, Walter Dakin, was a minister at the Episcopal Church. After changing his name to Tennessee Williams, he went on to become one of America’s greatest playwrights. Blues musician Big Joe Williams, born in 1903, grew up in the western Lowndes community of Crawford. Folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett, author of Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1926), photographer Marion Gaines, and baseball broadcaster Red Barber grew up in Lowndes County.
In the early 1900s the Lowndes County population remained substantial, increasing slightly to 29,987 by 1930, when African Americans accounted for almost 60 percent of residents. Columbus had a population of 10,501, but the county’s economy still concentrated on agriculture, with more than thirty-five hundred farms. Seventy-three percent of Lowndes County’s farmers were tenants, and their interests were divided among cattle, hogs, corn, cotton, and forage crops.
Lowndes County’s population jumped to 46,639 by 1960. It ranked fifth in the state in per capita income and near the top in population density and the percentage of its residents who had finished high school. As the home of the Mississippi University for Women, it employed more than one thousand people in education. Twenty-two percent of workers were employed in industry, including in electrical equipment, metalwork, and apparel. Farmers comprised 12 percent of the labor force, concentrating on soybeans, corn, livestock, and some cotton.
In recent years, Columbus has been notable as the home of documentary photographer Birney Imes and for Genesis Press, one of the nation’s leading publishers of books by and about African Americans. In 1988 Columbus became the site of the new Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science, which attracts students from throughout the state.
Like most counties in eastern Mississippi, Lowndes County grew between 1960 and 2000, when its population reached 61,586, before declining slightly to 59,779 a decade later. As in neighboring Oktibbeha and Noxubee Counties, the white proportion of the county had increased over the previous half century, and by 2010 just over half of Lowndes’s population was white, African Americans made up more than 40 percent of residents, and Hispanics represented a small but growing minority.
- Hogan v. Mississippi University for Women, 653 F.2d 222 )
- 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)