Located on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, Yazoo County was established in 1832. Its county seat is Yazoo City, and other towns include Bentonia, Eden, and Satartia. Prior to the county’s formal establishment, Yazoo conducted its first census in 1830 and found a population of 6,550, 37 percent of them slaves. Yazoo’s population grew to 10,000 in 1840, with 70 percent of that number enslaved. Yazoo County’s economy centered on cotton production.
By the late antebellum period, Yazoo County had become an agricultural powerhouse. In 1860 its population of 22,373 was the fifth highest in the state. Yazoo had more enslaved persons (16,716) than all but two other counties, and slaves accounted for three-quarters of the county’s total population. In 1860 the economic value of Yazoo farms was the highest of all Mississippi counties, in large part because of its cotton production and the value of its livestock. It ranked ninth in the state in corn production and fourth in sweet potatoes. That year, Yazoo County had a single manufacturing establishment, which employed three men in the leather industry. The religious census of 1860 counted twenty-nine churches in Yazoo County: fifteen Methodist, seven Baptist, three Episcopalian, three Presbyterian, and one Catholic.
The Civil War and Reconstruction had a tremendous impact on Yazoo County. Early in the war, the CSS Arkansas, a 165-foot-long ironclad warship, was built in Yazoo City. After Union forces took Jackson in 1863, various Confederate forces regrouped and reorganized in Yazoo City; among those who did so were the African American troops in the 3rd Regiment Cavalry who fought near Yazoo City. Following the war, White Leagues (organizations that used extralegal means, including violence, to oppose Republican politicians) were especially powerful in Yazoo County. Those opposed by the White Leagues included Republican politician Albert Talmon Morgan, who faced condemnation as a carpetbagger. Facing considerable opposition in the early 1870s, he finally fled Mississippi and wrote Yazoo; or, On the Picket Line of Freedom in the South.
Like many Delta counties, Yazoo’s population grew substantially in the postbellum years, becoming the second-most-populated county in Mississippi, behind only Hinds. In 1880 Yazoo’s population had grown to 33,845, including more than 25,000 African Americans. It continued to rank highly in agricultural production, with the highest value of farm property and livestock in Mississippi, the second largest cotton crop, the most mules, the second-most hogs, and the sixth-highest production of corn. Manufacturing was also becoming prominent, with twenty-six establishments employing 129 men, 2 women, and 6 children.
In 1900 Yazoo County’s population of 43,948 ranked third in the state. A total of 77 percent of residents were African American, while 23 percent were white. Cotton and tenancy dominated. Yazoo County had the second-most tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the state. Only 6 percent of the 5,291 black farmers owned the land they farmed, compared to 45 percent of the 1,450 white farmers. Yazoo County also had a growing industrial workforce, with 400 employees, almost all male, working at 127 manufacturing establishments. The county had an immigrant population of about 200, mostly Germans and Irish, and Yazoo City had a small but substantial Lebanese and Syrian community. As in much of Mississippi, the largest religious groups were Baptists and Methodists.
In the early twentieth century Yazoo remained a large county, though its population was slowly declining. In 1930 Yazoo was home to 37,262 persons, two-thirds of them African American. Twenty-two establishments, including a number of hardwood sawmills, employed almost 500 industrial workers. As in most of the Delta, Yazoo’s farmers emphasized cotton, followed by cattle and corn. Tenants accounted for 84 percent of all farmers.
Several important institutions had their roots in Yazoo County. In the 1920s Julius Zeller, a Yazoo City state senator, brought to the state the idea of junior colleges. Taborian Hospital, one of Mississippi’s first hospitals for African Americans, funded by the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, opened in 1928, predating a larger Taborian hospital in Mound Bayou by more than a decade. Yazoo County native Ruby Stutts Lyells, an educational activist and librarian, spent years working to improve libraries for Mississippi’s African Americans.
Yazoo’s population declined by about 6,000 between 1930 and 1960, leaving the county with about 31,000 residents. African Americans now comprised 59 percent of the population. Yazoo remained a great producer of agricultural goods, and agriculture employed about a third of the county’s workers. In 1960 Yazoo farms raised the most livestock in the state, the seventh-most cotton and wheat, and the twelfth-most soybeans. Yazoo County’s industrial establishments now specialized in apparel and chemicals rather than timber, and the county had four functioning oil wells. Mississippi’s first discovery of oil took place at Tinsley Field outside Yazoo City.
Some noted Mississippians of arts and letters grew up in Yazoo County. In 1844, at the age of twenty, Ethelbert Barksdale began his journalistic career by editing the Yazoo City Democrat. Willie Morris detailed life in and around Yazoo City in North toward Home, his 1967 memoir, which discussed his love-hate relationship with the city. Morris also wrote about his hometown in Yazoo, his 1971 discussion of school desegregation, and in numerous works of fiction and autobiography. Blues singer Skip James grew up on a plantation near Bentonia. Blues musician and sculptor James “Son” Thomas was born near Eden in 1926. Storyteller Jerry Clower was born in South Mississippi and gained fame for his stories after moving to Yazoo City to take a job with the Mississippi Chemical Corporation. Today, Yazoo City has an annual Jerry Clower Festival. Quilter Pecolia Warner learned her art from family members in Bentonia, and her quilting niece, Sarah Mary Taylor, grew up in the Yazoo County community of Anding.
In 1955 Yazoo City’s African Americans met powerful opposition when they sought to integrate the city’s schools after the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. John Satterfield, an attorney and leader in efforts to use lobbying and the law to oppose desegregation, became a key figure in Coordinating Committee for Fundamental American Freedoms, a conservative group organized in 1963.
Yazoo County has been the home of several important figures in Mississippi political history. Born in 1864, US senator John Sharp Williams grew up on Cedar Grove, a Yazoo County plantation. Two-term governor and Republican political leader Haley Barbour was born in Yazoo City in 1945, and Democratic representative and US secretary of agriculture Mike Espy was born in Yazoo in 1953.
Like most Delta counties in Mississippi, Yazoo County’s 2010 population of 28,088 was predominantly African American and had decreased by about 11 percent since 1960. In addition to its large white minority, the county had a small Latino population.
- 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)