Before his election to the state’s highest office, Thomas L. Bailey served twenty-four years in the Mississippi House of Representatives, including twelve years as Speaker of the House. Bailey, Walter Sillers, Joseph George, and Walter Kennedy comprised the “Big Four,” chairing key committees in the House and controlling the flow of legislation during their time in power.
Bailey was born in Webster County on 6 January 1888. After a short stint teaching in the state’s public school system, he opened a law practice at Meridian in 1913. A Democrat, he represented Lauderdale County in the state legislature from 1916 to 1940, coauthoring Mississippi’s homestead exemption law and strongly supporting pension benefits for senior citizens. He was also an early supporter of the Balance Agriculture with Industry program, and after his election as governor he championed industrial expansion in the state.
Though Bailey’s administration was cut short by his death as a result of a stroke on 2 November 1946, his tenure included a series of positive and enduring accomplishments. He established the Agricultural and Industrial Board to promote industrial growth and the Mississippi Marketing Commission to assist farmers in the sale and distribution of their goods. To facilitate the transportation of goods throughout rural parts of the state, Bailey promoted the development of a secondary highway system known as the farm-to-market roads.
The Board of Trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning was established during his first year in office, creating Mississippi’s first nonpolitical college board. His administration also saw establishment of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson and of the African American Mississippi Vocational College (now Mississippi Valley State University) in Itta Bena.
More than 237,000 Mississippians (one out of every nine) served in the armed forces during World War II, and Bailey predicted that their experiences would dramatically change both the state and the wider South. In his last address to the legislature he urged lawmakers to think beyond the next biennium and instead to plan for the next twenty-five years.
After the governor’s death his widow, Nellah Massey Bailey (1893–1956), entered politics. Her election as tax collector in 1947 made her Mississippi’s first woman to hold a statewide office. She won reelection in 1951 and 1955.
Thomas Bailey Drive, a segment of I-59 around Meridian, honors the former governor.
- Jackson Clarion-Ledger (3 November 1946)
- Jackson Daily News (25 August 1943, 3 November 1946)
- Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1924–28)