Panola County, located in northwest Mississippi in the Mississippi Delta, was established in 1836. According to oral tradition, its name comes from an Indian term for cotton. Its county seat is Batesville, with other notable towns including Como, Crenshaw, and Sardis. Shortly after its establishment, the 1840 census found that Panola County had slightly more slaves than free people (2,415 to 2,242). Part of an agricultural economy, antebellum Panola County had no industrial or manufacturing workers.
By 1860 the growing county had 5,237 free people and 8,557 slaves. Farmers raised cotton, corn, and livestock, and Panola County ranked seventh among the state’s counties in growing potatoes. Only twelve people were employed by manufacturers. Thirteen of the county’s twenty-seven churches were Methodist, seven were Baptist, four were Presbyterian, and three were Cumberland Presbyterian.
African Americans moved to Panola and other Mississippi Delta counties in great numbers after emancipation with the hope of finding and working available land. Despite losing part of its territory to Quitman County in 1877, Panola grew to 28,352 people by 1880, with two-thirds of them African Americans. Many had moved to Mississippi from other parts of the South. Only two counties produced more cotton than Panola did, and it ranked second in the number of cattle and eighth in the production of corn. Forty-six percent of the county’s farms were run by their owners, with the rest operated by tenants and sharecroppers. Panola’s thirty-one manufacturing establishments, all located in Batesville, employed seventy men and three children.
Between 1880 and 1900 Panola’s population remained stable. Small-scale manufacturing was rapidly increasing, with eighty-five establishments employing 110 workers. Only 16 percent of black farmers owned their own land, while 47 percent of white farmers did so.
Early in the twentieth century, Panola County’s Methodists and Baptists comprised more than 90 percent of all church members. The largest groups were the Missionary Baptists (more than five thousand), the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (more than three thousand), the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (more than two thousand), and the Southern Baptists (about sixteen hundred). Panola County also had many small but substantial groups of Presbyterians and Church of Christ members.
In 1930 Panola was home to 28,648 people, including almost 18,000 African Americans (63 percent of the population). Like several Delta counties, Panola had a low number of industrial workers—just 123. Almost 80 percent of its farms were operated by tenants, and cotton was the primary crop, followed by corn and forage crops.
Ties to the federal government brought changes to Panola County in the 1930s and 1940s. During World War II, Camp Como housed Italian and German prisoners of war. A more lasting change came with the construction of Sardis Lake, a US Army Corps of Engineers flood-control reservoir that was designed both to protect Delta agricultural land from flooding and to provide an important source for recreation, including fishing.
Though the county’s overall population numbers remained stable, in 1960 whites accounted for 44 percent of residents while the African American population declined to 56 percent. Panola remained agricultural, ranking near the top of Mississippi’s counties in growing corn and soybeans and high in the production of cotton and livestock. Textile work was the primary form of industry, and manufacturing jobs made up about 12 percent of the county’s employment.
Panola County has been the home of some uniquely creative citizens. The state’s first home demonstration agent, Susie Powell, was born in Batesville. Writer and critic Stark Young was born in Como in 1881. In the 1920s blues singer Jessie Mae Hemphill grew up near the Tate County line. Poet James Seay was born in rural Panola County in 1939. Mississippi Fred McDowell played most of his career around Como, where folklorist Alan Lomax recorded him in 1959. Hip-hop artist Soulja Boy was born in Batesville. Panola County is also the home of the Como Opera Guild and the Panola Playhouse.
In 2010, like many northern Mississippi counties, Panola County’s population was growing: its 34,707 residents constituted an increase of about 20 percent over the previous half century. The county’s racial profile shifted over this period, with whites accounting for 49.4 percent of the population and African Americans for 48.6 percent, while most of the remainder were Latinos.
- 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)