Washington County was founded in 1827 and named for George Washington. It is located in the Mississippi Delta region, bordering the Mississippi River. Greenville, the county seat, has long been the Delta’s largest city, and other communities include Leland, Hollandale, Arcola, and Metcalfe. For much of its history Washington’s economic and social life has been intertwined with the history of cotton production.
The area that became Washington County was the site of ancient mound-building people. The Winterville Mounds, located north of Greenville, originally consisted of twenty-three mounds arranged around a single mound more than fifty feet high, though some of the mounds have now been leveled.
In the 1830 census Washington County had 792 free persons and 1,184 slaves. By 1840 Washington had 660 free people and 6,627 slaves, establishing its identity as a Delta plantation county with a large slave majority. According to the census, the county had no manufacturing, but its steamboat stop brought people to Greenville and sent cotton to markets. Ten years later the county had even fewer free residents—546 whites and 7 free African Americans—and its slave population had increased to 7,836, giving the county the state’s highest percentage of slaves (93.4 percent). Washington County had no public schools and only two churches but had the highest value of farm property and third-highest agricultural production in the state. On the eve of the Civil War, Washington County’s population was 15,679, with 14,467 of those residents enslaved.
Washington County mushroomed after the war, with an 1880 population of 25,367. The county had 21,861 African Americans, 3,478 whites, and 28 Chinese. With African Americans comprising 86.2 percent of the population, Washington County continued to have the state’s largest African American majority. The county had only 454 farms, among the fewest in the state, but the average farm size of 404 acres was near the top, and its farm property ranked second in total value. Washington County led Mississippi in cotton production. Washington’s farmers grew substantial amounts of corn and potatoes and had a large number of mules, but the county ranked low in most other forms of agricultural production. Washington County also began to develop some manufacturing establishments, with nine firms employing 122 men, 3 women, and 62 children. In addition to the Chinese, the county’s foreign-born population of 367 consisted largely of natives of Germany and Ireland.
In 1900 Washington County was home to 49,216 people, the second-highest population in Mississippi, with 44,143 African Americans (90 percent), 57 Chinese, and 5,016 whites. Washington’s 6,407 tenant farmers and sharecroppers were by far the most in the state. Only 4 percent of the county’s 6,525 African American farmers and 38 percent of the 328 white farmers owned their land. Cotton dominated the economy, and as in other areas with high numbers of tenants, the average farm size of less than forty acres was exceptionally low.
Washington County had 578 women and just 14 men working in manufacturing jobs. The county also had a relatively large number of residents born outside the United States, with more than 500 immigrants, including people from Italy, Germany, China, Russia, and Austria. . In keeping with its large African American population, Missionary Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal churches dominated, but its ethnic diversity meant that the county also had more Jewish and Catholic residents than did most parts of Mississippi. Two notable institutions began life in Greenville in 1903: the Stein Mart department store chain originated with a store operated by Russian immigrant Sam Stein, and Doe’s Eat Place started as a grocery run by Italian immigrant Carmel Signa.
Washington County’s population changed relatively little in the early twentieth century, and the county remained one of the most densely populated in the state. Like other Delta counties, it had a substantial African American majority, though the white population increased in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1930 the county’s 54,310 residents included 444 who were born outside the United States—primarily in Italy, Palestine, Syria, and Russia. Greenville’s population topped 11,000, and Washington County businesses employed almost 1,400 industrial workers, ninth most in the state. Washington County had a cannery, the most cottonseed oil mills in Mississippi, and several of the state’s largest hardwood sawmills. Still, Washington remained very much a cotton-growing county and was one of seven Mississippi counties in which more than 90 percent of all farms were operated by tenants.
Washington County was the site of a great deal of experimentation with large-scale agriculture. Leroy Percy and other large planters tried various forms of labor organizing, including importing Italian farmworkers and employing Mexican migrant workers. Leland was home to one of the earliest commercial crop-dusting operations. The Delta Branch Experiment Station was founded at Stoneville to improve cotton production, first by combating the boll weevil. In 1948 agricultural experimentation in Stoneville led to major expansion in rice cultivation in the Delta.
The Delta Council organized in 1935 in Stoneville and sought to improve agriculture, economic development, health, education, and ties to the federal government. It attracted a combination of plantation owners, educators, and business leaders, and it helped set national agricultural policy when it helped form the National Cotton Council,.
The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 devastated Washington County, with flood conditions lasting four months and causing loss of life, homes, and crops. A levee north of Greenville broke, inundating two million acres in the Delta. City leaders organized a mass evacuation of white women and children to Vicksburg and Memphis, and a relief committee led by William Alexander Percy established a refugee camp that was inhabited largely by African American tenant farmer families. Area white planters, fearful of the loss of labor if an exodus of black farmworkers occurred, barred any opportunities for evacuation. Approximately 7,500 African Americans were stranded in tents on the levee, with men compelled to labor in poor conditions for no pay. Reports of this confinement, squalid conditions, and increasing tensions reached a national audience, and US secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover dispatched an investigative committee to the county. The disaster subsequently became one factor that prompted the growing migration of blacks to northern cities.
In politics, Washington County leaders tended toward the conservatism of plantation owners, but there was room for creativity. For example, Leroy Percy condemned the Ku Klux Klan as supporters of violence and anarchy during a 1922 election, and Clarke Reed helped build Mississippi’s modern Republican Party beginning in the late 1960s. Washington County has also had a long history of women in politics. Nellie Nugent Somerville, born in 1863 in Greenville, was the state’s leading proponent of woman suffrage, and she became the first woman elected to the state legislature. Her daughter, Lucy Somerville Howorth, became a lawyer and a force in Democratic Party politics in the 1930s and 1940s. Zelma Wells Price served the county for ten years as a legislator and became Mississippi’s first female judge.
Washington County has also been home to some of Mississippi’s most creative writers and artists. Many of them knew and learned from each other, while others became writers outside existing literary circles. Writers who knew and learned from each other included William Alexander Percy, Shelby Foote, and David Cohn. Percy, author of Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son, analyzed what he described as the decline of plantation traditions in the early twentieth-century South with the rise of mechanization and mass media, the outmigration of so many people, and the development of popular politics. Foote began his writing career as a novelist before turning his talents to a long narrative of the Civil War. A storekeeper’s son with affinities with the planter elite, Cohn offered a unique perspective on African American culture in the Delta with God Shakes Creation. Percy protégé Leon Z. Koury, born in 1909 to Syrian immigrants who became Greenville grocers, became a sculptor and painter as well as a leader in the local art scene for three decades. Koury, in turn, mentored Greenville-born sculptor William N. Beckwith.
Outside the Greenville literary circle, Jim Henson became an American children’s television and film pioneer with his Muppet characters. Novelist William Alexander Attaway, born in Greenville in 1911, set much of his work, including his best-known novel, Blood on the Forge, in the African American migration away from the South. Famous for a series of books about African American small-town life, Glen Allan native Clifton Taulbert, born in 1945, developed the concept of the “porch people”—adults who set community standards high and looked after everyone’s children. Authors raised in Greenville include Angela Jackson, who has written poetry, drama, and fiction; poet-translator Brooks Haxton; novelist Beverly Lowry; and essayist Julia Reed. Charles Bell wrote in numerous genres, including a long and creative history of world culture. Artists Valerie Jaudon and P. Sanders McNeal grew up in Greenville, and self-taught artist and musician James “Son Ford” Thomas lived in Leland.
By 1960 Washington County’s population had increased to 79,638, the third-highest in Mississippi, and the county had the state’s third-highest population density. However, population growth was driven primarily by white movement to Greenville, and African Americans now accounted for just 54 percent of the population. Washington County also had 264 Chinese residents (160 men and 104 women) and 48 Mexicans. Unlike most Delta counties, Washington had an average per capita income that ranked among the highest in the state. About 16 percent of the county’s workers were employed in industry—primarily construction, furniture, food production, and textile work. More than 800 residents were employed in hospitals and health care, and 3,100 of the county’s women worked in personal service jobs. As in previous decades, Washington ranked high in the state in the production of cotton (fourth), soybeans (fourth), oats (first), and rice (third), and 20 percent of its workers were employed in agriculture.
Two famous moments in the civil rights movement took place in Washington County in 1966. In January some out-of-work farm laborers, in a partnership with the Delta Ministry, took over the buildings of the Greenville Air Base, renamed it Freedom Village, and called on the federal government to address problems of poverty, hunger, and poor education. Late in the year, the phrase Black Power came to prominence in Washington County when Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and others first began using it during the March against Fear initiated by James Meredith.
Greenville’s two major newspapers had unique perspectives on civil rights activities. The Delta Leader, under editor H. H. Humes, was a conservative African American newspaper that advocated personal uplift rather than activism. The Delta Democrat-Times, edited by Hodding Carter II and Betty Werlein Carter, criticized numerous expressions of white supremacy, from Theodore Bilbo to massive resistance, a stance that provoked threats and condemnation from many members of the area’s elite. In 1978 a nonprofit group, Mississippi Action for Community Education, started the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival on the site of the Freedom Village protest. Washington County was the home of blues performers Richard Hacksaw Harney, Tyrone Davis, and Eddie Cusic, and the Greenville Chamber of Commerce produced a record of the songs of the mockingbird, Mississippi’s state bird.
As in many Delta counties, Washington County’s 2010 population remained predominantly African American but had decreased significantly since 1960. With just 51,137 people, Washington had lost 35 percent of its population 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)