Sharkey County is likely known most for the origins of the teddy bear and the birth of Muddy Waters. Yet the county has a long history of human settlement dating at least to the Middle Woodland period. An early indicator of settlement is the Little Spanish Fort, a ceremonial site built of earth, six feet high and two thousand feet in diameter. It, along with related Yazoo Basin sites, provides a way to understand a roughly two-thousand-year-old culture.
Part of the Lower Mississippi Delta, the region that became Sharkey County was a river area that in the early to mid-1800s concentrated on cotton, slavery, and relatively little else. Founded in 1876 from parts of Issaquena, Warren, and Washington Counties, Sharkey County began as an area with large numbers of African Americans and a high concentration of cotton on large plantations. In the county’s first census in 1880, 4,893 African Americans made up 77 percent of Sharkey’s population. The average farm size of 540 acres was among the largest in the state. The 1880 census recorded no manufacturing activity. The county was named for judge and governor William L. Sharkey. Its county seat is Rolling Fork, and communities include Anguilla and Cary.
Like much of the Delta, Sharkey County grew dramatically in the late 1800s. By 1900 the county had 12,178 residents, 88 percent of them African Americans. Sharkey was a rural county dominated by tenancy and sharecropping. Though whites made up a small percentage of the population, more whites than African Americans owned land. Ninety of the county’s 222 white farmers (41 percent) owned their land, while only 73 of 1,821 black farmers (4 percent) did so. Agriculture that used tenant farmers and sharecroppers usually produced large numbers of farmers and small farm sizes, and in 1900 the average Sharkey County farm was only fifty-five acres. Industry was growing slowly, with forty-nine firms employing sixty-two workers.
According to the 1916 religious census, 80 percent of Sharkey County church members belonged to Missionary Baptist congregations. Other groups were the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; the Southern Baptist Convention; and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.
Bears roamed the much of the wooded areas of the Mississippi Delta, attracting fascination and sport from visiting hunters. In 1902 Pres. Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Sharkey County to hunt bears. Holt Collier, an extraordinary hunter and guide, secured one bear, and some guides tied it to a tree. However, Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear because he considered those circumstances unsportsmanlike, and the incident inspired a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman in the Washington Post. Morris Michtom saw this cartoon and designed a toy, “Teddy’s Bear.” Sharkey County now sponsors an annual festival, the Great Delta Bear Affair.
Bluesman McKinley Morganfield was born in 1913 and grew up in Rolling Fork before moving farther north, first in Mississippi, and then to Chicago. Under the name Muddy Waters, he changed the blues world with a new style associated with the electric guitar. Gospel singer Willie Mae Ford Smith was born in Rolling Fork in 1904 and like Muddy Waters traveled widely before and during her musical career. Herman Dennis, a unique artist and minister born in Rolling Fork in 1919, created Margaret’s Grocery, an environmental work of art near Vicksburg.
The community of Panther Burn (or perhaps its name) continues to fascinate musicians and authors. Tav Falco has a Memphis-based band called Panther Burns, Mississippi musician Jimmy Phillips wrote a song called “Panther Burn,” and experimental jazz band Curlew also has a song titled “Panther Burn.” The movie Blues Brothers 2000 mentions the tiny community. In 2009 Roosevelt Wright Jr. published The Children of Panther Burn, a work of historical fiction.
By 1930 Sharkey’s population of roughly 14,000 was about 78 percent African American. Sharkey’s population was completely rural, with little manufacturing and an economy that concentrated on cotton. Sharkey was one of seven counties in which tenant farmers operated at least 90 percent of the farms, and African Americans comprised almost 90 percent of those tenant farmers.
The Mississippi Delta experienced significant population declines from the 1930s through the 1950s, and by 1960 Sharkey County had just 10,738 residents, 70 percent of them African Americans. The county also had a small Chinese population. Agriculture continued to dominate the economy, with 57 percent of Sharkey’s working people involved in farming, primarily growing cotton, wheat, soybeans, and oats. The relatively small numbers who were employed in manufacturing—about 7 percent—worked in textiles. In 1970, Sharkey County’s population again fell below 10,000.
The Sharkey County civil rights movement has not attracted great attention from scholars. Issaquena County activist Unita Blackwell filed suit so her son, Jeremiah, could attend integrated schools in Rolling Fork, and the county had a civil rights boycott in 1964.
Like many Mississippi Delta counties, Sharkey’s 2010 population was predominantly African American and had declined over the preceding sixty years. Indeed, the county’s population had experienced one of the greatest proportional decreases in the state, shrinking by more than 50 percent and making Sharkey the second-smallest county in Mississippi, with only 4,916 people.
- 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)