Industry and Industrial Labor
Complete view of J. Bound’s Mill, Moss Point, ca. 1913 (Ann Rayburn Paper Americana Collection, Archives and Special Collections, University of Mississippi Library, Oxford [rayburn_ann_32_30_001])

Industry and Industrial Workers

Mississippi’s historic failure to develop significant industry was in part a product of attitude and preference, as reflected in John Sharp Williams’s 1916 statement that Mississippi was a “‘wonderful state,’ untroubled by industries, cities, and ambition!”

However, from its earliest days the area that is now Mississippi enjoyed a small amount of nonagricultural economic activity, often connected to the region’s abundant forests and waters. West Florida produced barrel staves for sale to the sugar planters of the West Indies, ships as large as twenty tons were built in Pascagoula, and naval stores were produced for export. While manufacturing was limited in the Mississippi Territory, by 1810 the area had twenty spinning mills as well as 1,330 looms producing 350,000 yards of cotton cloth annually. In addition, there were producers of linen and woolen fabric, tanneries, and distilleries.

The first major new industrial enterprise of the 1830s was at Bankston, the location of a tannery, shoe manufactory, brickyard, and wheat, grist, saw, and textile mills. These operations, founded by J. M. Wesson, employed slaves and northern workers. By 1840, in an age dominated by cotton production, Mississippi had fifty textile factories, but they were extremely small and employed only eighty-four people. A spinning mill was constructed at Natchez to provide cotton and woolen thread for home looms. The state’s major industries were lumber mills, grist and flour mills, and tanneries.

Edward McGehee built a large steam cotton mill in Woodville in 1850, and Joshua and Thomas Green opened a textile mill in Jackson five years later. Mississippi’s largest industry in 1860 was lumbering, with 228 firms employing more than 1,400 workers. Other important industries included grain milling, blacksmithing, carriage and wagon making, metalworking, machinery and implement manufacturing, leather finishing, and cotton ginning. Between 1850 and 1860 the number of employees grew from 3,154 to 4,775. The industrial labor force was mostly white, including many immigrants in the textile industry.

Industry’s rise from the ashes of the war began with Wesson’s establishment of the Mississippi Mills in 1866. Later acquired by a New Orleans firm and then by cotton planter Edward Richardson, the factory burned in 1873 and was replaced by a new facility considered the largest textile mill south of the Ohio River. The operation employed eight workers and won national notice for the high quality of its products. By the end of Reconstruction, several other textile operations had entered the industry, including Stonewall Cotton Mill at Enterprise and Corinth’s Whitfield Manufacturing Company.

Some historians argue that during the late nineteenth century Mississippi failed to attract industry as rapidly as neighboring states because its resources were primarily extractive and lacked coal, hydroelectric, and other power facilities. Observers in the early twentieth century cited the absence of major population centers as an impediment, noting that cities on Mississippi’s borders acted as barriers to its urban development. Other perceived problems included a predominantly agricultural labor force and the low level of education among Mississippi’s workers, especially African Americans.

In 1882 the state legislature passed a law exempting new industries from taxation during their first decade of operation. This action stimulated investment, and by 1890 the state had nine cotton mills. Most of the workers were white, although African Americans were sometimes employed as firemen or janitors. Most of the white workers were natives of the area, although there were some immigrants from abroad or from other parts of the country. Still, these mills employed an average of only about twelve hundred workers and constituted only 1 percent of the country’s mills.

A longleaf pine lumber boom began along the Gulf Coast during the last quarter of the century, with the firm of Poitevant and Favre constructing one of the world’s largest mills at Pearlington. However, despite an abundance of timber, only seven ships with a total value of six thousand dollars were constructed in Mississippi yards during 1890. In that year the state ranked thirty-eighth (out of forty-four states) in the gross value of products and thirty-ninth in the average number of employees. In addition to the textile mills, in 1890 Mississippi had 338 sawmills, 408 flour and grist mills, and 8 planing mills and door manufacturers. To stimulate industrialization the tax exemptions for factories were extended in 1900 to include five-year exemptions for state taxes and ten-year exemptions for city taxes.

From 1890 to 1920 dramatic increases occurred in the number of manufacturing establishments in the state, the value of products, and capital investment. But while the increases were well above the national averages, Mississippi’s relative position among the states did not improve. Much of the increase occurred in lumbering, which accounted for nearly half of the value of manufacturing in the state and employed 21,223 out of 33,994 industrial workers in 1905.

Lumbering was a short-term proposition governed by a prevailing “Cut out and get out” philosophy. With the advent of railroad logging and steam-powered mills, lumbermen cut Mississippi’s forests rapidly, without providing for regeneration; once the trees were leveled, the industry moved on to other venues, especially in the West. Mississippians resented the exploitation of their forests to enrich investors and lumbermen from other areas. Such anger was channeled through Gov. James K. Vardaman’s attacks on the “lumber trust” and corporate interests generally. The rate of corporate expansion in the state slowed.

Gov. Henry L. Whitfield attempted to create a more favorable industrial climate by pushing for the repeal of laws limiting landholding by large corporations (a change that particularly affected lumber companies) and by encouraging railroad construction and the establishment of cotton mills. Signs of progress were evident: for example, although the lumber industry had eliminated some forty thousand jobs by 1930, all but five thousand were replaced by other employment. Also, lumber manufacturing began its evolution into the forest products industry as the Dantzler family began to make paper at Moss Point and William H. Mason developed a fiberboard process, turning out Masonite at Laurel. Because these industries used young pine trees and because officials wanted to revive the lumber industry on a more stable basis, Mississippi implemented a tax-exemption program for reforestation to encourage the growth of forests and their resulting jobs.

During the 1920s canning of fish produced rapid industrial growth along the Gulf Coast. However, during the early twentieth century, overall industry declined in importance, with manufacturing employment growing by only about seven thousand workers between 1910 and 1920 and then declining by nearly five thousand over the ensuing decade. By 1930 the state had only ten textile mills. Mississippi was hit hard by the Great Depression and lost population as people moved to other states to look for jobs.

State leaders struggled to attract investment and industry. A train with exhibits promoting Mississippi’s industrial potential traveled across other sections of the country. Gov. Martin Connor promoted industrialization, and Gov. Hugh White was elected in 1935 on a platform of industrial development. White’s program, Balance Agriculture with Industry (BAWI), led to the creation of the Mississippi Industrial Commission, which was empowered to issue certificates to local governments that sought to build plants for lease to prospective manufacturers. Citizens were asked to vote for local bond issues to finance plant construction. From 1936 to 1940, twelve plants were constructed under BAWI-approved bond issues. Most were in the garment industry, but there were also the Armstrong plant at Natchez and the Ingalls Shipyard at Pascagoula. By the end of World War II, BAWI-financed plants supplied nearly a quarter of the state’s industrial payroll, and the plants attracted during the 1930s accounted for 14 percent of the state’s industrial workers.

World War II brought industrial progress, including tremendous growth at Pascagoula, where Ingalls built commercial and US Navy ships, and at Flora and Prairie, where large ordnance plants operated. During the wartime boom from 1939 to 1947, the number of manufacturing establishments in Mississippi grew by 61 percent, factory employment rose by 47 percent, and workers’ income increased by 286 percent. Still, Mississippi ranked last among the states in federally financed war production facilities, last in total war contracts, and tied for last in privately financed facilities.

In 1944, to facilitate the transition to peacetime industry and promote industrialization, Gov. Thomas L. Bailey set up the Agricultural and Industrial Board. The effort included tax exemptions for industry and public bond issues to build plants. By the late 1950s the program had sponsored some 188 industrial projects, including 141 new industries and 47 plant expansions. Other industries were attracted by the state’s welcoming attitude. In 1957 Gov. J. P. Coleman increased funding for activities associated with industrial development, and his successor, Ross Barnett, created a “research park” in Jackson and pushed for a reduction in corporate taxes. In addition, railroads and power companies maintained industrial promotion programs, as did many other private groups, including the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and the Delta Council.

Mississippi industries grew rapidly during the 1950s. Industrial output reached $175 million in 1937, $759 million in 1947, and $1.605 billion a decade later. Wages rose by more than 100 percent. The leading industries were lumber, food processing, and pulp and paper, with textile manufacturing lagging far behind. Among the most spectacular stories was that of the Ingalls Shipbuilding, which had thrived during and after the war and by the late 1950s was the state’s largest single employer. Other large enterprises with significant industrial workforces included producers of shoes, garments, and chemicals.

In 1956 state industrial and financial leaders established the First Mississippi Corporation, which issued and sold bonds for new industries and industrial expansion. One of the first beneficiaries was the Coastal Chemical Corporation at Pascagoula, the world’s largest producer of sulfuric acid. By 1957 Mississippi chemical manufacturers employed six thousand workers and produced $181 million in goods annually. Natural gas was discovered near Amory in 1928 and near Jackson in 1930. At the end of the decade, major oil discoveries took place, and oil refining became a significant enterprise. In 1958 the state’s largest refinery began producing gasoline for Gulf Oil, and by 1970 Mississippi ranked ninth nationally in production and value of petroleum and tenth in natural gas production, employing more than fourteen thousand workers.

By 1957 Mississippi had a total workforce of 750,000, more than half in nonagricultural work. Almost 100,000 were in business operations, with most of the remainder in construction, professional work, and public employment. Lumbering was the leading industry, followed closely by apparel, with 24,000 employees and annual output of $208 million; food processing, with 14,000 workers and $334 million in output; and pulp and paper, with 8,000 workers and $236 million in product.

The state’s industrial growth continued over the 1960s, but the displacement of agricultural labor by mechanization resulted in a net loss of jobs. However, major gains accrued as a consequence of the expansion of employment in such industries as textiles and manufacturers of wood products. Among the wood products companies that established facilities in the state was Hillenbrand Industries, whose Batesville Casket Company had plants in Batesville and Vicksburg. The Vicksburg operation was named a Top 10 facility in IndustryWeek’s 2007 Best Plants competition.

Shipbuilding remained one of the glamour industries. Through various changes in corporate ownership, the Ingalls Shipyard at Pascagoula has continued to produce vessels for the US Navy (including nuclear-powered submarines), US Coast Guard, US Marine Corps, and foreign and commercial customers. An expansion of the Pascagoula facility completed in 1970 brought the total number of workers at Ingalls to more than ninety-six hundred. Employment at the facility peaked at twenty-five thousand in 1977 before dropping to about twelve thousand in the early twenty-first century. Ingalls remains the state’s largest industrial employer.

Despite the state’s commitment to recruiting and encouraging industry, Mississippi has continued to rank at the bottom nationally in per capita income and toward the bottom in industrialization. However, some bright spots have appeared on the horizon. In the 1970s northern Rust Belt states began to lose factories and jobs for a variety of reasons, including outdated facilities, the presence of unions and labor-management conflict, high tax rates, and burdensome environmental regulations. Some of these industries and jobs gravitated toward Third World counties, where tax rates and wages and other labor costs were lower. Others looked toward the South.

As some American companies joined the movement toward globalization, manufacturers in foreign lands began to challenge US companies in the American market. Led by Germany’s Volkswagen and then by a coterie of Japanese manufacturers, foreign automakers began to compete with the Detroit’s Big Three. As the quality of the imports rose and many Americans became disenchanted with domestic vehicles, the face of this important industry changed. Rather than simply shipping vehicles to America, foreign manufacturers began to build plants in the United States. These facilities were typically ringed by ancillary plants that manufactured components for the automobiles. Sun Belt states attracted a number of these operations, including Nissan in Tennessee and Mercedes in Alabama, but Mississippi was originally frozen out despite the state’s ongoing efforts to attract industry.

Mississippi recorded a significant breakthrough on 6 April 2001, when Nissan broke ground on a $1.4 billion vehicle assembly plant near Canton, just north of Jackson. At full capacity, the plant could produce four hundred and fifty thousand pickup trucks, sport-utility vehicles, and minivans annually. Eight additional new plants (valued at some $140 million) would supply the Nissan facility, while various Mississippi-owned suppliers would also benefit. The Nissan plant and the auxiliary facilities were expected to employ about thirty thousand people. Between 2003, when Nissan opened its Mississippi doors, and 2015, more than three million vehicles were produced in Canton. The most recent news of new industry was the 2016 announcement that Continental AG was moving a large new plant to the Jackson area.

The enormous Nissan facility elevated Mississippi’s profile as an emergent manufacturing location, and in February 2007 Toyota chose Mississippi over Arkansas and Tennessee for a new plant. Opened in November 2011 at Blue Springs, near Tupelo, Toyota’s facility cost $800 million to construct. In less than four years, the factory’s two thousand employees produced five hundred thousand Toyota Corollas.

Toyota’s decision to locate in Northeast Mississippi capped efforts to attract industry to what had once been one of the most impoverished areas in the nation. The industrial recruitment effort was led by the Pontotoc Union Lee Alliance, Mississippi’s first regional economic development alliance. The alliance was a product of 2003 state legislation that allowed collaboration among various governmental jurisdictions for economic development. The alliance located industrial sites, obtained land options, and secured environmental, geological, wetland, and archaeological clearances to market the sites at industry meetings and trade shows and among industry experts. Toyota’s decision to build in Mississippi illustrated the state’s enhanced industrial image as it entered the twenty-first century.

Long before the Toyota factory, the rise of industry had brought occasional conflicts between capital and labor. As the Knights of Labor sought to establish a presence in the state they were involved in numerous strikes over wage and hour issues. The Knights encountered strong opposition from employers and community leaders. One strike occurred in the textile industry at Wesson in the late 1880s. Another took place among forest products industry workers in the Moss Point–Pascagoula area. Additional conflicts in that industry occurred at Handsboro in 1888, 1889, and 1900. By 1888 the Knights of Labor had thirty-three locals in Mississippi, some of them racially mixed, but as a result of their liberal philosophy and their national decline, the Knights were gone by the early twentieth century.

The first permanent unions in the state were in the railroad industry, with a local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers established at Water Valley in 1869. The Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen chartered their first Mississippi local in 1888, establishing four additional units by 1904. By 1910 the firemen and engine men had five lodges, with the first four chartered before 1894. Legendary engineer Casey Jones was a member of two of the early Water Valley lodges and in 1893 was elected president of the local firemen’s lodge. Railroad shops were established in Water Valley, Meridian, Jackson, Vicksburg, and McComb. The railroads brought jobs and encouraged immigration—at Water Valley, for example, the railroad company brought in four hundred Swedes in 1877.

The decline of the Knights of Labor coincided with the rise of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a national organization built on the craft union concept. Craft unions, organized around trades, became the dominant form of labor organization in Mississippi during the early twentieth century. Early craft unions were established at Natchez, Vicksburg, Gulfport, Biloxi, Jackson, Meridian, Hattiesburg, and McComb. Unions were apparently well accepted in these communities, including even McComb, where the local merchants, newspaper, and citizens supported the workers during a large and violent two-month strike in 1911 by shop craftsmen against the railroad. In 1918 the State Federation of Labor was organized to act as a coordinating body for all Mississippi AFL unions.

During the 1920s and the early 1930s the State Federation worked with the legislature to pass measures favorable to workers and cooperated with the Mississippi State Board of Development to attract industry to the state. By 1927 the State Federation of Labor’s membership numbered around fifteen thousand. Craft and railroad union membership topped eighteen thousand. Blacks and whites often attended unsegregated union meetings during this period. Blacks dominated some of the organizations numerically but were not allowed to hold important offices. In other cases, however, conflict arose between the races, particularly when they were competing for scarce jobs.

From the mid-1930s onward Mississippi political leaders assumed an antiunion attitude. Gov. Hugh White’s Balance Agriculture with Industry program was built on the assumption that Mississippi’s ability to attract industry would improve if labor unions were weak. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began to challenge the AFL on the national scene, although Mississippi had only one hundred CIO members by 1939. Mississippi was virtually untouched by the southern unionization drives of the AFL and CIO, probably because of the absence of major industries.

Union membership boomed after World War II. Nationally, membership reached seventeen million, and in the South a fierce organizational war erupted between the AFL and the CIO. The CIO’s Operation Dixie was especially successful in Mississippi between 1946 and 1949, winning more union recognition elections than it lost, but the union’s efforts in the state were terminated after 1948 because of a change in leadership. Prior to that date, the CIO had more success organizing Mississippi workers than did the AFL. The two unions merged in 1955, when the state’s two largest industrial unions were the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the International Woodworkers of America, each of which had more than five thousand members.

During the 1950s and early 1960s union growth in Mississippi stagnated, although industrial employment increased significantly. Antiunion sentiment was strong, particularly in the northern part of the state, where industrial growth was most significant, and from 1950 to 1962 overall union membership increased only from fifty thousand to fifty-two thousand. Some of the industries attracted to the state came at least in part to avoid labor unions, including low-wage apparel, textile, and furniture manufacturers. Adding to the problems of unions and union organizers was the legislature’s 1954 passage of a right-to-work law followed by a special 1960 election that added the bill as an amendment to the state constitution. In addition, the state courts were almost unfailingly willing to issue injunctions against picketing and other union activities in labor disputes. Still, with strong industrial job growth during the 1960s, union membership increased by twenty-eight thousand during the decade, reaching about eighty thousand by 1970.

Union growth was in part a product of moderating attitudes among state and community leaders and of the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act, which had a section on equal employment opportunity that led employers to hire greater numbers of African Americans. Blacks constituted at least half of the workforce in many plants and were more receptive to union organizing efforts than their white coworkers.

As low-wage textile and garment firms and other industries migrated to Third World countries during the 1980s and 1990s, Mississippi and other traditionally low-wage southern states launched campaigns to attract newer high-tech industries, including automobile manufacturers and their many suppliers. Again, the lures included an abundant labor force and a considerable amount of antiunion sentiment. As in the earlier industrial recruitment drives, the new jobs created were largely nonunion jobs, but now they were no longer low-wage, low-benefit jobs. Mississippi manufacturing and workers entered a new and better industrial age.

Further Reading

  • James C. Cobb, Industrialization and Southern Society, 1877–1984 (1984)
  • James C. Cobb, The Selling of the South; The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936–1990 (1993)
  • James E. Fickle, Mississippi Forests and Forestry (2001)
  • Nollie W. Hickman, Donald C. Mosley, and Ralph J. Rogers, in A History of Mississippi, vol. 2, ed. Richard Aubrey McLemore (1973)
  • John Hebron Moore, The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest: Mississippi, 1770–1860 (1988)
  • Donald C. Mosely, “A History of Labor Unions in Mississippi” (PhD dissertation, University of Alabama, 1965)
  • Nissan Canton Vehicle Assembly plant website,
  • Toyota USA Newsroom website,

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Industry and Industrial Workers
  • Author
  • Keywords Industry, Industrial Workers, Mississippi
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 5, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 26, 2018