Public school in Clarksdale (Ann Rayburn Paper Americana Collection, Archives and Special Collections, University of Mississippi Library, Oxford [rayburn_ann_36_04_001])


In an 1802 address to the Mississippi Territory’s legislature, Gov. W. C. C. Claiborne spoke eloquently of the need for free schools: “The very preservation of Republican government depends upon the diffusion of knowledge among the body politic.” He recommended the establishment of a system of public schools and a state university. The legislature responded by establishing Jefferson College in the territorial capital, Washington, six miles east of Natchez, but took no action on a system of free schools.

During the early years of statehood the only institutions that could be considered public schools were the township schools supported in part by the funds from Sixteenth Section Lands—the lands US policy set aside for the support of education. Franklin Academy, established at Columbus in 1821, was Mississippi’s first public school supported by the revenue from Sixteenth Section Lands. Since that money was not sufficient to fully support the schools, most township schools charged some tuition.

The antebellum Mississippi government devoted little money to education. In 1846 Gov. Albert Gallatin Brown presented the legislature with a comprehensive educational package that called for the creation of a state superintendent of education and county school boards, the establishment of a uniform statewide public school system, and the enactment of a school tax. However, the measure that eventually passed did not establish a state superintendent and county school boards, and it allowed any county to exempt itself from the provisions of the law by a popular vote. Rather than establishing a direct school tax, which was very unpopular, the legislature paid for public schools with fees imposed on hawkers and street peddlers, pool halls, tenpin alleys, tippling houses and saloons, liquor stores, and “private houses of entertainment” as well as other unspecified fines. The permissive nature of the law, which vested school management in the local community, created a “bewildering maze” of separate school districts.

Mississippi’s small farmers saw no compelling reason to spend any of their meager income on book learning, and antebellum artisans learned their craft through the apprenticeship system. Most farmers and craftsmen thus considered attending school a luxury for which they had neither time nor inclination. Wealthy Mississippians, in contrast, tended to send their children to private schools or to hire tutors. Historian Alma Pauline Foerster has argued that the southern gentry fostered the notion that free schools offered “a bounty to the indigent.”

The most important circumstance that stymied the development of a state system of public schools was the attachment to place, the doctrine of local control, and the determination of the county oligarchies to run their own affairs without interference from the folks in the next county or from the state capital in Jackson. This sense of localism was prompted in part by travel conditions in antebellum Mississippi, where distances were measured not in miles but in days. In 1860 65 percent of the state’s land mass was virgin forest, and Jackson was four days’ journey from the state university in Oxford. Such conditions deepened the sense of place, and the attachment to local schools has remained very strong over the ensuing century and a half.

No public institution in antebellum Mississippi provided formal education to its slave population or free blacks. Mississippi was the only slave state that reported no free black children in school in 1850. Thomas Jones briefly conducted a school for “children of color” in Natchez, but it apparently closed after Jones was arrested for furnishing a forged pass to a slave. Although a state law prohibited the education of slaves, some slaves and free blacks managed to acquire rudimentary reading, writing, and mathematical skills.

The tension between church and state was a central theme in the early history of higher education in Mississippi. In 1811 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church declared that education was “the legitimate business of the church, rather than the state,” and in 1818 a convention of evangelical ministers denounced authorities at Jefferson College for neglecting the religious instruction of their students. This attack severely damaged the college’s public standing, and its enrollment steeply declined.

The board of trustees subsequently reorganized Jefferson College into a military academy. The cadets, some as young as five years old, displayed a “sartorial splendor” in their dashing uniforms at daily parades. Offering insight into the psychology of antebellum white Mississippians, the school’s historian has written, “What southern boy would not thrill to the crack of musket shots, the smell of burning powder, and the clash of steel?”

In 1829 Gov. Gerard Brandon recommended that the Jefferson College Board of Trustees return its charter to the state so the legislature could establish a public university at a central location “more likely to meet with public patronage.” Brandon also recommended that Mississippi Academy, a collegiate institution in Clinton, be designated the state university. The academy, like Jefferson College, was technically a state-supported institution, and in 1827 the legislature allocated part of the proceeds from an 1819 federal land grant to the academy. The enormous potential of that revenue encouraged the school’s patrons to seek its designation as the state university. But Brandon could not persuade the legislature to create one state institution of higher learning at a central location.

Mississippi also had several other small private colleges, most prominently the University of Holly Springs, Sharon College in Madison County, Centenary College in Brandon, Semple Broaddus College in Centre Hill in DeSoto County, Jackson College in Jackson, and Oakland College in Claiborne County. All were small residential colleges with a closed classical curriculum. The Natchez College of Commerce and the Southern Scientific Institute, also located in Natchez, and the Chulahoma College and Commercial Institute in Marshall County were small and short-lived institutions that provided the rudiments of commercial and agricultural education.

Several women’s colleges and academies also existed in antebellum Mississippi, most notably Elizabeth Female Academy in Natchez, the Female Collegiate Institute in Holly Springs, and Whitworth College in Brookhaven. The curriculum at the women’s colleges combined the classics with other courses that collegiate officials considered appropriate for women students. According to a statement by the founders of Elizabeth Female Academy, “Female virtues relate to domestic more than public things. The education of females, therefore, should teach them to aspire to those virtues peculiar to their sex.” Other educators, however, rejected such a limited view of women’s intellectual capacity or interests. The president of Whitworth College believed “that the female is able to comprehend as the male” and conducted his school on that presumption.

Most of Mississippi’s collegiate institutions were small denominational schools, and many members of the state’s aristocracy sent their sons to college in the North or to Europe. But as the sectional crisis over slavery intensified, some Mississippians saw a danger in that tradition. Gov. Albert Gallatin Brown had long favored the founding of a state university for reasons that went beyond academics. “Those opposed to us in principle,” he said, “can not safely be entrusted with the education of our sons.” In response to this growing concern, the legislature founded the University of Mississippi, which opened on 6 November 1848 with eighty-three students. After Mississippi seceded, all but four of its students joined the Confederate Army, and the university, like most other Mississippi collegiate institutions, closed during the war.

The American Civil War is the central, crucial event in this nation’s history. Nothing was ever the same again, certainly not in the South and in Mississippi, and one of that war’s most significant legacies is Mississippi’s public school system. After the emancipation of Mississippi’s 436,631 slaves, the legislature established a public school system and provided scholarships to students at the University of Mississippi who agreed to teach in the new system. The legislature also established Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, the first black land-grant college in the United States, and the State Normal School, a black teachers college at Holly Springs that remained in existence until 1904, when Governor James K. Vardaman, who opposed educating Mississippi’s African American population, vetoed its state appropriation.

Mississippi’s 1870 school law established a statewide system of free schools to be financed by a school tax and authorized school boards in counties and municipalities to build schools to meet local demands. The statute did not require public schools to be racially segregated, but racial demographics and public sentiment nevertheless resulted in separate schools for whites and African Americans. After the adoption of the 1890 constitution racial segregation in the public schools became a matter of both law and tradition. The dual system and the sparsely settled nature of the state’s population resulted in the establishment of thousands of small schools in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

In 1904 the state superintendent of education reported that the state had 4,188 rural white schools with an enrollment of 169,507 and 2,892 rural black schools with an enrollment of 205,601. The rural school year averaged 129 days. Like the antebellum common schools, most of the rural schools had just one room and did not group students by grade level. In addition to the rural school system, which was supervised by county officials, Mississippi had thirty-four town school districts supervised by municipal authorities, with a total enrollment of 29,796 white students and 18,837 black students. These schools divided students into grades and had a school year that averaged 165 days.

During the early twentieth century, with the advent of motorized transportation and the construction of hard-surface roads, Mississippi initiated a massive school consolidation program that eventually transformed the common school system. In 1910 the legislature authorized the consolidation of county schools and provided free transportation for enrolled students. After overcoming initial resistance generated by Mississippi’s strong sense of localism, consolidation was enormously successful. By 1936 Mississippi had nearly a thousand rural schools with an enrollment of more than 200,000 students, 150,000 of whom were transported by school wagons and buses. More than four hundred teachers’ homes had been constructed near the schools.

Most of the municipal separate school districts provided secondary education, and the 1910 legislation authorized county school boards to establish residential agricultural high schools to provide secondary education for rural students. Over the next decade, officials established fifty-one agricultural high schools across the state. A 1922 law then authorized the agricultural high schools to add the first two years of college to their curriculum. The Pearl River and Hinds County agricultural high schools immediately did so, becoming the state’s first junior colleges. After World War II most of the junior colleges discontinued their high school classes and expanded their technical and vocational programs. In the 1970s the junior colleges tailored their course offerings to local needs and interests, and all but one are now known as community colleges. Mississippi’s community college system is considered one of the best in the nation.

Even after three decades of massive consolidation, Mississippi still had 197 county and separate school districts and 4,921 attendance centers at the end of World War II, as well as eighteen white and three black agricultural high schools. The rising costs of public education, the demand for better schools, and the impending desegregation of Mississippi’s dual system prompted wide support for the reorganization of public schools. The US Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling had permitted segregated educational facilities as long as they were “separate but equal.” Beginning in the 1940s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had spearheaded a legal campaign against segregation by pointing out the inequalities in southern black and white school systems. That campaign reached its climax with the Supreme Court’s May 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which found that separate schools were inherently unequal. However, officials in Mississippi and other southern states hoped that they would be permitted to retain their segregated educational systems if they undertook a major campaign to bring the schools for African American children into parity with the schools for white children.

As the ultimate safeguard against the integration of the public school system, however, on 21 December 1954 Mississippi voters voted by a margin of two to one in favor of a constitutional amendment authorizing the abolition of public schools if necessary to prevent their integration. In addition, the legislature rescinded the state’s compulsory attendance law in 1956.

The first breach in Mississippi’s wall of official school segregation occurred at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962. Following a night of rioting in which two people were killed, James Meredith was admitted to the university under a federal court order. Although the school’s board had resisted the order for almost two years and Gov. Ross Barnett had threatened to close the institution, the Kennedy administration ultimately forced Mississippi’s white power structure to abide by the court order. Following Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi, the state’s other institutions of higher learning integrated peacefully over the next several years.

Mississippi’s K–12 schools had avoided integration for a decade after the Brown ruling, but passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 signaled that segregated schooling’s days were numbered. Many state and local officials began to prepare for that inevitability, and integration gradually began to occur. In the spring of 1970 the state’s dual, segregated school system was superseded by a unified, integrated system, and Mississippi’s black and white children finally attended school together. Integration occurred more peacefully than most people had believed possible because classroom teachers and school officials focused on accepting rather than resisting the change and on the safety of the state’s half a million schoolchildren.

Mississippi received significant infusions of federal funds from the National Defense Act of 1958 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. These funds provided a boon to the state’s underfunded system just as the school curriculum was proliferating and extracurricular activities were burgeoning.

During the 1970s, under the leadership of Gov. William L. Waller, Mississippi public schools also benefited from a renewed emphasis on a more equitable use of Sixteenth Section funds, early childhood and adult education, better teacher pay, a more comprehensive system of accountability, and the reinstatement of compulsory education. The culmination of this growing popular support for public education was the ratification of a constitutional amendment creating an appointed state board of education with the authority to appoint the state superintendent. In addition, with the strong public support of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Gov. William F. Winter shepherded passage of the Education Reform Act of 1982 at a special December 1982 legislative session. The measure constituted what many consider the most comprehensive and most significant school law since the establishment of the public school system in 1870.

In 1992 the legislature passed another major education reform, the Education Enhancement Act, over the veto of Gov. Kirk Fordice. This law provided special funding to the state’s public school system, community colleges, and institutions of higher learning to renovate and add facilities, to repair and add to Mississippi’s aging fleet of school buses, and to upgrade school libraries.

By the early twenty-first century Mississippi’s public school system included sixty-eight county school districts, eighty-one municipal separate school districts, and three agricultural high schools. The state also operates schools for the blind and the deaf as well as a math and science school and a high school for the arts. Public school enrollment was approximately five hundred thousand, with nearly thirty-six thousand classroom teachers earning an average annual salary of about forty thousand dollars.

The state’s collegiate system included fifteen community colleges with thirty-three branch campuses and more than two hundred thousand students. Enrollment in the state’s eight universities totaled approximately seventy thousand, with almost 80 percent receiving some form of student aid.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast on 29 August 2005, it totally destroyed 16 schools schools along the coast and damaged another 24 as well as 263 schools further inland in South Mississippi. Recovering from the storm has been only one of the challenges facing Mississippi’s educational system in the early twenty-first century. The state has made some major gains in improving education: for example, the annual dropout rate fell from 6.2 percent to 3.2 percent between 1995 and 2012, and the graduation rate for entering high school freshmen rose from 62.7 percent in 2002–3 to 68 percent in 2011–12. Moreover, between 2000 and 2013 Mississippi’s students improved their fourth- and eighth-grade reading, writing, and mathematics scores on the standardized tests that are part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the Nation’s Report Card). But Mississippians still trail the national averages on all of those tests, and graduation rates for Hispanic and African American children are lower than the rates for their white peers.

Further Reading

  • Charles C. Bolton, The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870–1980 (2005)
  • Andrew P. Mullins, Building Consensus: A History of the Passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982 (1992)
  • National Center for Education Statistics website,
  • David Sansing, Make Haste Slowly: The Troubled History of Higher Education in Mississippi (1990)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Education
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date January 21, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 30, 2018