Not surprisingly, Mississippi’s population has reflected the major developments in the state’s history. Using figures from the US Census is complicated and at times frustrating, because census takers had different questions and standards at different times. Still, statistics show the broad trends of Mississippi life, with dramatic increases in population in periods of agricultural prosperity or when land or new employment became available and declines during times of economic difficulty. Three trends stand out in the state’s population centers. First, Hinds County emerged early as a population center and remained one. Second, the other population centers shifted from southwestern Mississippi to northern Mississippi in the mid-1800s, to the Mississippi Delta in the late 1800s, and to the Mississippi Gulf Coast beginning the mid-1900s. Third, the emergence of DeSoto County, just south of Memphis, Tennessee, as the state’s third-largest county in 2010 may reflect the beginning of another trend.
Historians estimate that about 19,000 Indians, primarily Choctaw and Chickasaw, lived in Mississippi Territory at the time of the American Revolution. Early in Euro-American settlement, the population counted by US officials—free and enslaved persons but not Indians—was concentrated in the southwestern part of the area that is now Mississippi. The first census, conducted in 1792, found 4,706 whites and African Americans in the Natchez District. In 1817, when Mississippi became a state, almost 47,000 people lived there, 21,440 of them enslaved.
The most dramatic gains in population took place in the 1830s and 1840s. By the mid-1800s the free and slave population had spread across much of the state, Hinds County had emerged as a growing population center, and North Mississippi counties such as Marshall, Monroe, Lowndes, and Tishomingo had large populations. The great majority of the native populations had been forced west.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s African American migration made Delta counties—Washington, Yazoo, and eventually Bolivar and Sunflower—among the state’s most populated places. Three significant migrations of African Americans occurred. First, African Americans from Mississippi and other states moved into the Delta counties. Then, in the 1910s, outmigration during the first Great Migration resulted in the state’s first net decrease in population. And more dramatically, migration to the northern and western states in the 1940s and 1950s during the Second Great Migration shrank Mississippi’s population.
New chances for employment during and after World War II encouraged rapid population growth on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Harrison and Jackson Counties have been among the most heavily populated parts of the state since the 1950s. In 2010 an influx of people to northern Mississippi made DeSoto the state’s third-most-populous county while most other counties in the rural Mississippi Delta, including Washington, Bolivar, Coahoma, Sunflower, and Humphreys, continued to see significant declines in population. Since the Second Great Migration began, most of these counties have lost more than half of their total population, the combined result of scarce employment opportunities and the gravitation of the younger population to urban areas.
- Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Migration and How It Changed America (1991)
- US Bureau of the Census website, www.census.gov
- University of Virginia Library, Historical Census Browser website, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu/