Founded in 1833 and named for a Choctaw word roughly meaning “river of rocks,” Tallahatchie County is located in the Mississippi Delta. The county has two seats, Charleston and Sumner. Other Tallahatchie communities include Glendora and Tutwiler. In the 1840 census, Tallahatchie was a small but growing plantation county with a population of 1,591 slaves and 1,394 free persons. All of the county’s workers were employed in agriculture.
By 1860 the county’s population had grown to 5,054 slaves and 2,836 free people. Tallahatchie’s commitment to plantation crops showed in its concentration on cotton. It ranked in the upper half of the state’s counties in cotton production despite its small population. In 1860, 23 people worked in industry, almost all of them in lumberyards, and the county had ten churches: five Methodist, three Presbyterian, and two Baptist.
In 1877 part of Tallahatchie County became a section of Quitman County. Nonetheless, Tallahatchie County experienced a substantial population increase, with a population of 10,926 in 1880. African Americans made up nearly 62 percent of all residents, and as in many counties with African American majorities, sharecroppers and other tenants, rather than farm owners, did most of the farming. Tallahatchie’s farm population concentrated on cotton but also grew corn and potatoes and raised livestock. In 1880 the county had fifteen manufacturing firms, which employed thirty-five men. Residents of Sumner suffered from river flooding from 1882–84, traveling by boat to nearby Webb for supplies.
From 1880 to 1900 Tallahatchie County’s population nearly doubled to 19,600, and about two-thirds of the residents were African Americans. Tallahatchie was very much a farming county, and as in much of Mississippi, dramatic differences existed between the percentage of African American farmers who owned their land (192 of 2,262, or 8 percent) and the percentage of white farmers who did so (490 of 1,027, or 48 percent). Tallahatchie County was home to 98 industrial workers, all but one of them male, and 59 immigrants.
In the early twentieth century about half of Tallahatchie County’s church members were Baptists—most of them Missionary Baptists. Methodists, especially the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, accounted for more than a third of the county’s churchgoers, while substantial numbers of Southern Baptists were also present.
Tallahatchie County played an important role in Mississippi music. At the Tutwiler railroad station, W. C. Handy first encountered the “strangest music I ever heard”—the blues. Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Miller) was born between Tutwiler and Glendora, and old-time country musicians Narmour and Smith, though not from Tallahatchie County, recorded three songs named after one of the county seats: “Charleston #1,” “Charleston #2,” and “Charleston #3.”
The Tallahatchie County courthouse in Sumner was built in 1903 and destroyed by fire in 1908; its records were destroyed in another fire a year later. The rebuilt Sumner courthouse became a focus of national attention during the 1955 trial and acquittal of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam for murdering Emmett Till.
Tallahatchie County’s population increased substantially in the early twentieth century, topping 35,000 by 1930. African Americans continued to outnumber whites by a ratio of about two to one. Charleston had more than 3,000 residents. Despite the 400 or so industrial workers, Tallahatchie, like most of the Mississippi Delta, remained dominated by agriculture. Tenant farmers operated 88 percent of county farms, and cotton was by far the leading agricultural product. Tallahatchie County native Jamie Whitten, a longtime member of the US Congress, was one of the leading backers of agricultural policies that supported the goals of Delta planters.
Several individuals important to the civil rights movement were natives of Tallahatchie County. Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, grew up in Webb before moving to Chicago and returned to Tallahatchie for the trial of the men accused of killing her son. Vera Pigee grew up in Tallahatchie County before moving to Coahoma County and becoming an important leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The county’s population declined sharply in the mid-twentieth century, and by 1960 Tallahatchie was home to just 24,081 people. African Americans comprised 64 percent of the population, whites accounted for 35 percent, and the remainder were Chinese and Native Americans. Tallahatchie remained an agricultural county, with 61 percent of its workers engaged in farming—the third-highest percentage in the state. Farms concentrated on soybeans and cotton as well as wheat, corn, and livestock. Six percent of the workforce was employed in industry, primarily in making apparel.
Tallahatchie has been the home of some uniquely creative people. Actor Morgan Freeman grew up in Charleston and in 2008 supplied resources and inspiration for his hometown high school to desegregate its senior prom, an event featured in the 2009 film Prom Night in Mississippi. Sumner native William Eggleston helped revolutionize both the techniques and subject matter of American photography. Patti Carr Black, longtime director of the Mississippi State Historical Museum and author or editor of numerous books on Mississippi arts and culture, grew up in Sumner. The Tutwiler Quilters emerged in the 1980s as a combination of long traditions of quilting and new efforts to use quilts as a way to support the health and well-being of women in the county.
Like many Delta counties in Mississippi, Tallahatchie County’s 2010 population was predominantly African American and had declined over the last half of the twentieth century. Fifty-six percent of the 15,378 residents were African American, 39 percent were white, and about 6 percent were Hispanic/Latino.
- 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)