Located in east-central Mississippi, Neshoba County was founded in 1833. Its name comes from a Choctaw word meaning “wolf.” The county may be best known for three things: (1) the notorious murders of three civil rights workers in 1964, (2) the presence and prominence of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and (3) a county fair popular far beyond the county’s borders.
After its founding, Neshoba County almost doubled in population during each decade in the antebellum period. In its first census in 1840, only 1,693 free people and 744 slaves lived in Neshoba County. By 1850 the population had increased to 4,729, including 3,393 free people and 1,335 slaves. Ten years later, Neshoba County’s population had risen to 6,131 free people and 2,212 slaves (26 percent of the total). Antebellum Neshoba was not a large producer of agricultural goods, but it ranked considerably higher in the value of its livestock. The county had 49 industrial workers, most of whom worked at four lumber mills.
Neshoba’s 1880 population of 8,741 had grown little since the antebellum period. Neshoba County’s 418-person Choctaw community gave it the state’s largest Native American contingent and the highest percentage (about 5 percent) of Native American residents. Owners rather than tenants ran 82 percent of the county’s farms and concentrated more on corn, swine, and sheep than on cotton. Neshoba remained a farm economy, with only 23 people working in industry.
Between 1880 and 1900 the county’s population grew by about 50 percent to 12,726. The rates of landowning for both black and white farmers were higher than state averages, with 77 percent of white farmers and 43 percent of black farmers owning their land. In 1900 Neshoba had only 23 industrial workers and the lowest total manufacturing wages in the state.
In 1891, with the organization of the Neshoba County Fair, the county became a central location for annual visits and campaign speeches. In the twentieth century the fair became famous for unique cabins that housed generations of families and friends visiting the area.
Methodists and Baptists made up more than three-quarters of the county’s church members in the early twentieth century. The Southern Baptist Convention and Methodist Episcopal Church, South were the largest religious groups, while Catholics accounted for about 7 percent of churchgoers.
By 1930 Neshoba’s population had risen to 26,691, including 20,516 whites, 5,469 African Americans, and 695 Native Americans. Despite having the eleventh-most industrial workers in Mississippi (1,080 people), Neshoba remained an agricultural county with more than 4,600 farms evenly divided between those run by owners and those operated by tenants.
The Choctaw Fair began in the Pearl River community in 1949 and has subsequently become a major gathering of both Choctaw and nonnative people. At the fair, numerous events celebrate Choctaw culture through food and sports. In addition, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has aggressively recruited industry since the late 1970s and has run successful casinos since the 1990s. The Mississippi Band has also become one of the state’s major employers and runs a school system where more than 1,500 students learn the Choctaw language as part of their education.
Between 1930 and 1960 Neshoba’s population declined to 20,927. Whites made up 72 percent of the population, with African Americans totaling 22 percent and the Choctaw 6 percent. Farmers made up about 26 percent of the workforce, while manufacturing provided another quarter of all jobs. The majority of industrial workers produced either clothing or furniture. Farming concentrated first on corn, then cotton and soybeans.
In 1956 Charles Evers organized the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and by the early 1960s Neshoba County had an active civil rights movement. In June 1964 three movement workers—Meridian native James Chaney and New Yorkers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—disappeared while investigating the burning of Mount Zion Methodist Church outside Philadelphia in retaliation for the church’s support for civil rights efforts. The three men were later found dead, and their murders attracted national condemnation and a long series of investigations that finally ended with the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for manslaughter in 2005. The movie Mississippi Burning (1988) offered a fictionalized version of these events.
Marcus Dupree was a football star at Philadelphia High School before playing at the University of Oklahoma and in the United States Football League and National Football League. Willie Morris’s 1983 book, The Courting of Marcus Dupree, details how Dupree’s talent helped to smooth over racial divisions and brought football scouts to rural Mississippi.
Race relations in the county again received more national attention and criticism when presidential candidate Ronald Reagan made a 3 August 1980 stop at the Neshoba County Fair, where he attracted attention and controversy for using the language of states’ rights.
Between 1960 and 2010 Neshoba County’s population increased by nearly 42 percent, reaching 29,676. Whites made up a majority of the population, African Americans comprised a substantial minority, and the Choctaw minority showed significant growth.
- 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)