Founded 1828, Rankin County is located in central Mississippi and was formed from part of Hinds County. Named for political figure Christopher Rankin, the county is located on Pearl River. Its county seat is Brandon, and other communities and towns include Flowood, Pearl, Richland, Florence, Pelahatchie, and Puckett. Two important Mississippi institutions, the Piney Woods Country Life School and the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield, are located in Rankin County. Perhaps just as important is the county’s recent shift away from agriculture to become a highly populated suburban area.
In its first census in 1830, the small county had only 1,697 free people and 386 slaves. It grew quickly and by 1840 had 2,780 free people and 1,851 slaves. The population continued to increasing, reaching 13,635 in 1860, when 52 percent of residents were enslaved.
The county’s farmers practiced mixed agriculture, growing cotton, corn, rice, and potatoes and raising substantial numbers of livestock. The county’s thirteen lumber mills, thirteen flour mills, and handful of other enterprises employed a total of 120 men and 1 woman. Of the county’s eighteen churches in 1860, eleven were Baptist, six were Methodist, and one was a Christian Church.
The stories of two lawyers help tell the county’s history. Brandon attorney Robert Lowry (1829–1910) became a Confederate brigadier general, a state legislator, and ultimately the governor of Mississippi from 1882 to 1890. Samuel Alfred Beadle (1857–1932) was born a slave in Georgia, moved to Rankin County, received legal training, and in 1884 became one of the few African Americans in the state with a law license. Beadle later moved to Jackson to practice law and to write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
Rankin County’s population increased to 16,752 in 1880 and to almost 21,000 two decades later. The county remained primarily agricultural, and African Americans made up about 60 percent of the population. More than 70 percent of the 1,436 white farmers owned their land, nearly three times the rate for the county’s 1,962 black farmers. Industry grew slowly, with forty-four establishments employing eighty-four workers in 1900. In 1909 Laurence C. Jones started the Piney Woods School, an experimental institution near the Simpson County line that continues to educate students more than a century later.
According to the religious census of 1916, three-quarters of Rankin County’s church members were Baptists, divided almost evenly between Missionary and Southern Baptists. The other leading group was Methodists, most of them members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
Among the wide range of creative individuals who grew up in Rankin County were musician and instrument maker Otha Turner, born in 1908; blues musician Elmore James, born in 1918 near Richland; and football star Frank “Bruiser” Kinard, born in 1914 in Pelahatchie. All developed their talents outside Rankin County.
In the early twentieth century, Rankin County’s population steadied at around 20,000, with African Americans accounting for about 55 percent of that total. By 1930 the county had 973 industrial workers. Despite its location adjacent to Hinds County, with its urban center of Jackson, Rankin had no urban population. Instead, its primary economic activity remained farming, with both tenants and landowners raising cattle, corn, and cotton.
In the 1920s the state moved the Mississippi State Insane Asylum from Jackson to Rankin County and renamed the town where it was located in honor of Rankin native Henry Whitfield, who served as governor from 1924 to 1926.
Between 1930 and 1960 Rankin County’s population increased to 34,322, with the number of African American residents declining while the number of whites more than doubled to account for 63 percent of the total. In 1960 nearly a quarter of Rankin’s workers were employed in industry, primarily furniture and timber, and more than 1,000 of the county’s residents worked in hospitals and health care. The once agricultural county still had farmers, but by 1960 they comprised just 13 percent of Rankin’s workforce. The population continued to increase, reaching almost 44,000 in 1970 and topping 69,000 a decade later.
Brandon native Mary Ann Mobley became Miss America in 1959 and went on to a career as a singer and actress. In 1978 Barney McKee, then director of the University Press of Mississippi, and his wife, Gwen McKee, started Brandon’s Quail Ridge Press, which initially published Mississippi cookbooks and has since expanded.
Rankin County’s 2010 population of 115,327 represented an increase of 312 percent since 1960, the second-highest growth in Mississippi over the period. Overwhelmingly white, the county had an African American population of just under 20 percent of the total and a small but significant Hispanic/Latino minority.
- 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)