Situated in the northwestern part of the state, thirty miles south of Memphis, Tate County was organized in 1873 and is named for Col. T. S. Tate, a member of an area family. It was formed from the quickly growing northern Mississippi Delta counties of Tunica, DeSoto, and Marshall. Like many nearby Delta counties in the postbellum period, Tate experienced an agricultural boom. By the time of the 1880 census, it ranked tenth in the state in growing corn, twelfth in cotton, twelfth in the number of mules, and thirteenth in the number of hogs. Because of its successful agricultural production and the presence of a local train station, the county seat, Senatobia, functioned as a shipping point for large quantities of cotton, corn, and other agricultural products. According to the 1880 US Census, Tate County was to home 18,721 residents.
Sharecroppers and tenants cultivated the majority of the Tate County farms, which focused on cotton production. In 1880 owners cultivated about 40 percent of the farms, while sharecroppers and other tenants ran the remainder. Residents had few other employment options, with only nineteen manufacturing firms employing 70 men and 11 women.
By 1900 the population had grown to 20,618, 60 percent of them African American. The county continued to rely heavily on cotton and other agricultural production. Only 4 percent of the county’s 2,206 black farmers owned their land, compared to more than a third of the white farmers. Tate’s nonagricultural workforce remained small but had grown to 136 employees at sixty-nine establishments.
In the 1916 religious census more than 60 percent of Tate County’s 12,000 church members identified as Baptists, including 4,300 Missionary Baptists. Members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; Colored Methodist Episcopal Church; and African Methodist Episcopal Church accounted for most of the rest of the county’s residents, while Tate County had the state’s largest Church of Christ membership (695).
Tate’s population declined to 17,671 in 1930, with African Americans continuing to account for 60 percent of residents. The economy remained dependent on agricultural production, primarily cotton. Tenant farmers operated 81 percent of the county’s four thousand farms.
Tate County is watered by surrounding rivers and tributary creeks. The Coldwater River runs along the northern and western border, while Senatobia, Arkabutla, Hickahala, Jim Wolf, Bear Trail, and Strayhorn Creeks dot the county’s landscape. The abundant water supply contributes to Tate’s rich agricultural production but has also made the area susceptible to flooding. In 1942 the US Army Corps of Engineers built Arkabutla Lake to limit flooding in the Delta region. It now provides recreational opportunities for a large population.
Tate County has an intriguing and creative musical history. Coldwater was one of Mississippi’s first communities to host a radio station, and numerous well-known Mississippi musicians are associated with Tate. Blues performer Jessie Mae Hemphill was born near the Tate and Panola County line. As a child Otha Turner moved with his family to the Tate County community of Gravel Springs, where he stayed for most of his life, playing instruments he built himself. Country musician O. B. McClinton was born in Senatobia in 1940, and bluesman R. L. Burnside spent much of his childhood in Tate County.
Memphis-born writer Joan Williams had grandparents in Arkabutla, and she used Tate County as the model for parts of her fiction. Historian Dumas Malone, best known for his multivolume biography of Thomas Jefferson, was born in Coldwater. Actor James Earl Jones was born in Arkabutla in 1931 and lived there until the age of five, when his family moved to Michigan. Northwest Community College opened in Senatobia in 1928 and now enrolls more than seven thousand students each year.
Unlike other parts of the Mississippi Delta, Tate did not experience a significant population loss in the second half of the twentieth century, though the county’s demographics changed significantly. In 1960 Tate County was home to 18,138 people, 58 percent of them African American. Almost half of Tate’s working people were employed in agriculture, with cotton, corn, and soybeans as the primary crops. About 10 percent of the county’s workers had jobs in industry, mostly in apparel factories.
Tate County’s population grew by nearly 60 percent between 1960 and 2010, reaching 28,996. By 2010 67 percent of Tate’s population was white, while 30 percent was African American, and 2 percent was Hispanic/Latino.
- City of Senatobia website, www.cityofsenatobia.com
- Mississippi State Planning Commission, Progress Report on State Planning in Mississippi (1938)
- Mississippi Statistical Abstract, Mississippi State University (1952–2010)
- Northwest Mississippi Community College website, www.northwestms.edu
- 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)