The area in east-central Mississippi that became Newton County had a substantial Choctaw population that moved west in the 1830s as part of policies of Indian Removal. Reportedly named after Isaac Newton, the county was formed from the southern part of Neshoba County in 1836. Its county seat is Decatur. In the frontier period, Newton County was a small but growing community with a large majority of free people. In the 1840 census, Newton had 1,980 free people and 454 slaves, one of the smallest slave populations in the state.
By 1860 Newton’s population had increased to 6,131 free people and 2,212 slaves (approximately 35 percent of the total). Despite its small size, Newton ranked thirty-sixth among the state’s sixty counties in cotton production. Among Newton County’s twelve churches, five were Baptist, five were Methodist, and two were Presbyterian.
By 1880 the county had grown to 13,436 people, with substantial increases in the numbers of both African Americans and whites. Newton was also home to 322 Choctaws, the third-highest Native American population in the state. Newton’s postbellum farmers practiced mixed agriculture, concentrating on corn and other grains rather than on cotton. Owners cultivated about 73 percent of the county’s 1,493 farms, a figure well above the state average, while tenants and sharecroppers farmed the rest.
Population growth continued in the late 1800s, and by 1900 Newton’s population totaled about 20,000. Of the county’s white farmers, 72 percent owned their own land, compared to just 27 percent of the African American farmers. Manufacturing was increasing, with 63 firms employing 172 industrial workers, all but 3 of them male. One of the first four agricultural experiment stations in Mississippi started in Newton County.
The religious census of 1916 showed that Baptists—almost evenly divided between Southern Baptists and Missionary Baptists—made up 70 percent of all church members in Newton County. Methodists and Presbyterians accounted for most of the remainder. Notable events in the county’s religious life included the 1908 establishment of Clarke Memorial College, a Baptist institution as well as a state singing convention for gospel musicians that took place in Newton in 1934.
Civil rights leaders Charles and Medgar Evers were born in Decatur in the 1920s and attended Newton Vocational School. Eugenia Summer, born in Newton in 1923, taught at Mississippi University for Women and was a noted artist.
In 1930 Newton’s population grew to almost 23,000. The county’s farms were divided evenly between those run by owners and those operated by tenants. Corn and livestock were the primary agricultural products, followed by cotton and swine. Newton County’s twenty industrial establishments employed 434 people.
The county’s population declined to 19,517 in 1960, with whites making up two-thirds of residents, African Americans 32 percent, and Native Americans 2 percent. About a quarter of the county’s workforce labored in industry. Both men and women worked in apparel factories, while furniture production primarily employed men. Another quarter of the workforce raised livestock and mixed crops. Newton’s population remained steady through the 1980s.
Like many counties in central Mississippi, Newton’s population has remained relatively stable in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In 2010 Newton County was home to 21,720 people, 63.2 percent of them white, 30 percent of them African American, and 5 percent of them Native American.
- 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)