Perhaps most famous as the home of Parchman Prison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Archie Manning, and various blues musicians and sites, Sunflower County has played a major role in many of the most dramatic and revealing developments in the history of the Mississippi Delta. Sunflower County was founded in 1844 and named for the Sunflower River. Its county seat is Indianola, and other communities include Drew, Inverness, Moorhead, Parchman, and Ruleville.
In its first census in 1850, the sparsely populated county had a total of 1,162 residents, including 754 slaves and 348 free people. Over the next decade the free population increased somewhat to 1,102, while the slave population increased dramatically to 3,917. Sunflower was very much a plantation county, with its agriculture concentrating on cotton far more than other crops.
In 1871 part of Sunflower County became a section of Leflore County. Early in the postbellum period, it remained a lightly populated county with an African American majority. In 1880 African Americans accounted for 2,867 of Sunflower’s 4,661 people. Unlike many areas with African American majorities, most Sunflower County farms were cultivated by their owners rather than by sharecroppers or other tenants. Farmers continued to concentrate on cotton but also grew grains and raised livestock in substantial numbers. The average size of Sunflower County farms was 293 acres, well above the state average.
Sunflower County experienced an extraordinary population increase in the late 1880s and by 1900 was home to 16,000 people, three-quarters of them African American. Only 8 percent of the county’s 2,172 black farmers owned their land, and Sunflower had more than 2,000 African American tenant farmers and sharecroppers. As in other Delta counties dominated by tenancy, farms were now small, averaging just forty-five acres, barely half the state average of eighty-three acres. In contrast, 40 percent of Sunflower’s 533 white farmers were landowners. Sunflower had a small but growing industrial population, with 57 workers, as well as a burgeoning immigrant population of 96, most of them Germans and Poles.
In 1904 the State of Mississippi established a prison, Parchman Farm, on twenty thousand acres in Sunflower County. Parchman quickly became one of Mississippi’s largest plantations and was a penal facility for thousands of male convicts, the large majority of them African Americans, who were put to work in agriculture and prison upkeep. Parchman became legendary for many reasons, including its status as a plantation, its place in blues lyrics and experiences, its policies regarding physical punishment and spousal visitation, and the imprisonment of numerous civil rights activists in the 1960s.
In the early twentieth century 7,800 of Sunflower County’s 13,000 church members belonged to Missionary Baptist congregations. Likely the most famous Baptist leader from Sunflower County was Rev. C. L. Franklin (father of Aretha Franklin), who became nationally known for his work in Memphis, Buffalo, and Detroit. Three Methodist groups—the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; and the Methodist Episcopal Church—had more than 800 members each, as did the Southern Baptists. Sunflower County also had the second-highest number of Disciples of Christ members (287) in Mississippi.
In the early twentieth century Sunflower was a place of dramatic extremes. Its 1930 population of more than 66,000 was the third-highest in Mississippi, and its African American population of 46,646 was the highest in the state. Sunflower trailed only Hinds County in population density. The county’s economy continued to focus on agriculture. Sunflower had 12,374 farms (again, the second-most in the state), 94 percent of them run by tenant farmers. Farmers in Sunflower and Bolivar Counties grew the most cotton, and an extraordinary 98 percent of Sunflower’s land was farmland, substantially higher than the state average of 66 percent. The county also ranked third in the amount of rice produced and was home to a number of Russian, Italian, and Chinese immigrants.
Scholars know a great deal about depression-era Sunflower County because of two thorough sociological works, Hortense Powdermaker’s After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South and John Dollard’s Caste and Class in a Southern Town. Both studied everyday life in great detail, with particular emphasis on issues of race and class.
The phrase Going Where the Southern Cross the Dog dates to the roots of the music that became known as the blues. It refers to a place in Moorhead where the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley rail line intersected with the Southern line. Perhaps even more revealing about Sunflower County’s place in the blues is Dockery Plantation, famous as the home of Charley Patton. Other blues musicians with Sunflower County connections include Patton associate Willie Brown, who worked as a sharecropper on a Sunflower plantation; Little Milton, born on a plantation outside Inverness; and Albert King and B. B. King, both from Indianola, which today is the home of the B. B. King Museum.
As in much of the Delta, Sunflower County’s population declined dramatically in the mid-twentieth century. Between 1930 and 1960 Sunflower lost nearly one-third of its residents, and the population fell to 45,750. Three-quarters of those who departed were African Americans. Agriculture remained the primary economic pursuit, with almost half of the county’s working people employed in farming. Sunflower County ranked first in cotton production, second in soybeans, third in rice, and fifth in wheat. About 7 percent of the employed people worked in industry, primarily men in textile work, and Sunflower had an unusually high number of people working in hospitals and health care. Sunflower County ranked high among Mississippi counties in the number of residents with less than five years of education.
Sunflower County produced both important civil rights activists and some of their most prominent opponents. At the instigation of founder Robert “Tut” Patterson, Indianola was the home of the first chapter of the Citizens’ Council, and Doddsville was the plantation home of Sen. James O. Eastland, a powerful opponent of civil rights efforts. In the 1950s Clinton Battle reinvigorated the county’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In the 1960s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee efforts at voter registration ushered plantation timekeeper Fannie Lou Hamer into her role as an influential spokesperson for the civil rights movement when she was fired after trying to register to vote. Her stirring address to the 1964 Democratic National Convention introduced many people to Sunflower County. In Drew, Mae Bertha Carter worked to integrate public education by sending her children to all-white schools. Charles McLaurin moved to the area in the 1960s as a young activist and has remained a community activist and leader.
Other important figures with roots in Sunflower County include college and professional football star Archie Manning, who grew up in Drew; influential New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne; and writer Steve Yarbrough, who has set many of his novels and short stories in the Mississippi Delta.
Like many Mississippi Delta counties, Sunflower County remained predominantly African American in 2010. The county’s population of 29,024 represented a decline of more than one-third 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)