Zelma Price was a member of the state legislature from Washington County and the first female judge in Mississippi. She was born to Mattie Lou Wells and Walter Wells, a deputy sheriff, in Rishville, Mississippi, in Calhoun County, where she graduated from high school in 1916. Price married and divorced Jimmy Price early in her adult life and raised two daughters while working as a teacher in Tallahatchie County and as a telegraph operator in Memphis. Although she never attended college, she worked her way through law courses while employed by a Greenville law firm and began practicing law there in the 1930s.
She was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives from Washington County in 1943 and served for ten years. Price chaired the House Temperance Committee, an intriguing position for someone who opposed the state’s Prohibition law. In 1948 she proposed a bill that would have mandated a statewide election to outlaw Prohibition, though the measure was never enacted. She claimed that Mississippi laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol yet taxing those sales made the state a “laughing stock,” and she believed that a substantial tax on legal alcohol sales could fund a pay raise for schoolteachers.
Price was passionate about her political interests. As a member of the Delta Council, Chamber of Commerce, and lawyers’ groups in Washington County, she belonged to the Delta elite. As a member of the House committee on juvenile delinquency, she wrote the bill creating Mississippi’s first court system for juveniles accused of breaking the law. After suffering injuries in a car wreck driving to Jackson in 1950, she had hospital employees roll her hospital bed to the floor of the legislature so she could cast her vote to create the state’s first medical school.
Price took pleasure in her role as one of the few women in Mississippi politics. Consistently described in newspaper stories as “interesting” and “colorful,” Price was a popular speaker at white women’s clubs, often lecturing on topics such as “Women in Political Action” and “Strengthening the Foundations of Freedom in the Home.”
In 1953 Gov. Hugh White appointed Price to serve as county judge, making her the state’s first female to sit on the bench. Her commitment to women in public life inspired Price not only to call for jury service for women but also to put women on juries in Washington County in the 1950s, years before doing so actually became legal.
A lively individual who loved company and conversation, Price lived in the same Greenville home from 1940 until her death in 1974. With an interest in genealogy, she compiled and in 1959 privately printed a sprawling eight-volume history of her family. Following their mother’s example, both of Price’s daughters became lawyers.
- Joanne V. Hawks et al., Journal of Mississippi History (November 1981)
- Zelma Wells Price Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Zelma W. Price, Of Whom I Came: From Whence I Came: Wells-Wise, Rish-Wise, and Otherwise (1959)