Quitman County was established in 1877 from parts of four other Delta counties: Tallahatchie, Tunica, Panola, and Coahoma. The bill to establish Quitman County was introduced by Leopold Marks, a Jewish state legislator, for whom the county seat is named. The county itself was named for Mississippi governor John A. Quitman.
In the 1880 census, Quitman County was home to 815 African Americans and 592 whites. The county had sixty-two farms and plantations with an average size of 417 acres, a figure far higher than the Mississippi average of 156 acres. Quitman County farmers grew cotton and grain and raised livestock. Leopold Marks allowed the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad to come through his plantation free of charge to encourage growth in the area.
By 1900 Quitman County’s population had reached 5,435 and was 77 percent African American. Only 9 percent of the 812 African American farmers owned their land, while about one-third of white farmers did so. Quitman had the fewest industrial workers of any Mississippi county.
The 1916 religious census counted thirty-six hundred Missionary Baptists, a historically African American group, and no more than five hundred members of any of the county’s other significant groups, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Southern Baptists.
Quitman County’s population grew steadily in the early twentieth century. Its 1930 population of 25,304 was 69 percent African American. The county had no urban center and only twenty-seven industrial workers. In Quitman and six other Delta counties, tenants operated more than 90 percent of all farms. Cotton was the dominant crop. In the 1920s and 1930s Quitman County had several of Mississippi’s first aerial crop dusting services, which worked for large landowners. Ninety-two percent of Quitman’s farms were smaller than fifty acres, far higher than the state average of 72 percent.
Charley Pride, one of the first African American stars of country music, was born in 1938 in the Quitman County community of Sledge. Johnnie Billington, born in Crowder in 1935, performed with numerous blues musicians before returning to the Delta and setting up programs to teach the blues to children. Blues musicians Earl Hooker and Albert “Sunnyland Slim” Luandrew were born in Quitman County and moved north to Chicago.
By 1960, following the Great Migration from the Mississippi Delta, Quitman’s population had declined to 21,019 but remained about two-thirds African American. Quitman also had a small population of Chinese immigrants. County farmers produced the sixth-most cotton and soybeans in the state, and almost 60 percent of the county’s workers were employed in agriculture. The small but growing industrial workforce concentrated on furniture and timber products. The county had clear educational problems, as Quitman residents trailed all but one other county with just 6.7 median years of education.
During the 1960s Quitman County was a noted site of both rural poverty and organized efforts to fight that poverty. In 1967 activist Marian Wright arranged for Sen. Robert Kennedy to tour Quitman to see the seriousness of poverty in the Delta. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final civil rights initiative, the Poor People’s Campaign, in which residents formed a mule train to travel to Washington, D.C., to demand better jobs and wages, began in Marks in 1968.
As in most of the rest of the Delta, Quitman County’s population declined over the second half of the twentieth century but remained predominantly African American. According to the 2010 census, Quitman had just 8,223 residents, a decrease of more than 60 percent over the preceding half century.
- 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)