Located in southern Mississippi, along the Louisiana border, Pike County was one of Mississippi’s original counties. Established in 1815, the county was named after explorer and US Army officer Zebulon Pike. Its county seat is Magnolia, and other towns include McComb, Osyka, and Summit.
By 1820 the county’s population consisted of 3,444 free people and 994 slaves. Agriculture dominated the economy, though 55 people worked in commerce and industry. Over the next few decades, Pike County’s population grew, primarily through an increase in the number of slaves. Pike had 3,777 free people and 2,374 slaves in 1840; those numbers had grown to 6,200 and 4,935, respectively, by 1860. Pike County’s farms raised cotton, livestock, and corn, ranking in the middle in all categories. It ranked fourth in rice production and eighth in orchard production. Forty-one men worked in twelve industrial firms, which concentrated on lumber, leather, and saddles. Typical of most Mississippi counties, Pike County had twelve Baptist churches, eleven Methodist churches, and two Presbyterian churches.
The county’s population increased dramatically after the Civil War, with 8,572 white residents, 8,112 African American residents, and 4 Native American residents in 1880. Pike remained an agricultural county, with 1,471 farms, 73 percent of them cultivated by their owners. Pike also ranked high in its production of molasses, rice, and potatoes. In contrast, the county ranked relatively low in cotton production. The lumber industry in southern Mississippi became increasingly important in the late 1880s, and in 1881 the first railroad built just for hauling timber began operating in Pike County. As a railroad hub, Pike County (especially McComb) attracted immigrants: most of its nearly 500 foreign-born residents came from Germany, Ireland, England, Sweden, and Scotland.
The population continued to increase, and by 1900 Pike County was home to 27,545 people, roughly half of them African Americans. With McComb as a railroad center, Pike was quickly becoming an industrial center for South Mississippi. In 1900 the county had 1,233 industrial workers, all but 47 of them men. Pike County employers paid the third-highest industrial wages in Mississippi. McComb was home to one of Mississippi’s first railroad workers’ unions. The census recorded 288 foreign-born residents in Pike County (the eighth most in the state). Most of the immigrants were German and English, with smaller numbers of Irish-, Italian-, and Swedish-born residents. Forty-three percent of African American farmers owned their land, as did 77 percent of white farmers.
In Pike County as in much of Mississippi, Baptists accounted for the largest number of churchgoers in the early twentieth century. According to the 1916 religious census, Missionary Baptists (more than six thousand members) and Southern Baptists (more than four thousand) constituted better than two-thirds of the county’s churchgoers. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South was the third-largest group, followed by Catholics, whose seven-hundred-plus members constituted an unusually high number for Mississippi.
The area was also home to a number of educational leaders. Eva Gordon, principal of the African American schools of Pike’s county seat, Magnolia, in the 1910s and 1920s, built up schools using the Rosenwald Fund. Gladys Noel Bates, an educator who became a civil rights activist, was born in McComb in 1920. McComb’s Vernor Smith Holmes, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning as well as a surgeon, consistently called for responsible and fair education for all state residents. Willie “Rat” McGowen, a successful basketball coach at Alcorn State University, grew up in McComb.
A handful of artists grew up in Pike County, especially in Summit. Painter and art teacher Marie Hull was a founding member and early president of the Mississippi Art Association in the 1910s. Bess Dawson, Halcyone Barnes, and Ruth Holmes made up the Summit Three, a group active in the Mississippi Art Colony in the 1940s. Much later, self-taught artist Loy Allen Bowlin of McComb constructed unique works using sequins and rhinestones to cover his home and car. Musician Bo Diddley (Otha Ellas Bates) was born in McComb in 1946 before moving with his family to Chicago.
By 1930 Pike County had grown to more than 32,000 people, with whites slightly outnumbering African Americans. It was among the state’s most densely populated counties. McComb had become a city, with more than 10,000 people, and 1,825 men and women worked in industrial jobs, the fifth-highest total in Mississippi. In 1930 Pike was home to a small but significant number of immigrants from Italy, Palestine and Syria, England, and Sweden as well as to a much larger number of people whose parents had been born outside the United States.
Pike’s population growth slowed but continued through the mid-twentieth century. In 1960 Pike County had a population of 35,063, with 56 percent of those residents whites. More than 20 percent of its workers had jobs in industry, primarily furniture and timber, apparel, and food. In addition, Pike County had two functioning oil wells. Just 8 percent of Pike’s workers were employed in agriculture, and corn, soybeans, and livestock were their primary concerns.
McComb became a center of civil rights activism, some notable opposition to the civil rights movement, and some significant civil rights era writing. Pike County was home to an active chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led by C. C. Bryant, a group of Congress of Racial Equality activists, and a combination of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers from outside Mississippi and some newly inspired young people in Pike County. Teenaged protesters Brenda Travis, Hollis Watkins, and Joe Martin emerged from school protests, and Robert Moses, James Bevel, Lawrence Guyot, and Marion Barry were among the many activists who went to McComb to support voting rights and other activism. Activists opened Nonviolent High, a freedom school for students who had been kicked out of local schools for protesting segregation. Pike County farmer and activist Herbert Lee was murdered in 1961, and many other activists endured beatings, intimidation, and arrest.
Two powerful Pike County editors, Oliver Emmerich of McComb and Mary Cain of Summit, worked on opposite sides of civil rights issues, with Emmerich criticizing the Citizens’ Council and Cain condemning the federal government. Delta editor Hodding Carter’s 1965 book, Why the Heffners Left McComb, told the story of apparent moderates who had to leave the area.
Pike County’s racial profile shifted during the last half of the twentieth century, and by 2010 African Americans accounted for 51 percent of the population. Like many southern Mississippi counties, Pike’s population had increased since 1960, growing by 15 percent to a total of 40,404.
- 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)