The history of the Colonial Natchez District, Mississippi’s most successful early European settlement, is one frequently told through the eyes and accounts of White settlers. Yet, Natchez was built primarily through the backbreaking work of enslaved Africans. During Natchez’s first century, people from Europe and Africa, along with Native Americans, struggled with each other over land, labor, and wealth. However, not all Africans in Natchez were enslaved.
During the early 1900s, the boll weevil threatened the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta and put the state’s cotton kingdom in peril. Surprisingly, planters believed that the best way to defend their cotton from the weevil was to protect their place on top of the racial and social ladder in the Delta. James Giesen’s research reveals the ways in which the beliefs of White landowners concerning race and labor shaped the approach of Delta planters to their agricultural environment and its pests.
In 2011 Mississippi newspapers reported that during the mid-20th century civil rights movement, more than one hundred Mississippi African Americans were victims of assault or murder, yet no perpetrators, many of them unknown, were identified or convicted.
Mississippi had pockets of strong local civil rights activity before the Freedom Riders entered the state, but their presence in 1961 propelled the local movement to new heights.
Prior to the involvement of national initiatives in the 1960s, such as the Freedom Rides, local people worked to bring an end to discrimination in their communities. These efforts were led out of public view in private homes, churches, and small businesses. For this reason, the early local leaders of the Civil Rights Movement are often overlooked in history.
Aaron Henry was born in 1922 in Coahoma County, Mississippi, the son of sharecroppers. From a young age, he worked in the cotton fields alongside his family on the Flowers Plantation outside of Clarksdale. He remembered those years vividly when he recalled, “As far back as I can remember, I have detested everything about growing cotton.” Regardless of his early hardships, education was a priority for the Henry family.
Clyde Kennard put his life on the line in the 1950s when he attempted to desegregate higher education in Mississippi. Kennard, a little-known civil rights pioneer, tried to become the first African American to attend Mississippi Southern College, now the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg. In doing so, he ran afoul of the White political establishment and paid a heavy price. After his tragic death, his story was overshadowed by other developments in the civil rights movement.
Clyde Kennard, a young Korean war veteran born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, tried in 1955 to become the first African American to attend what is now the University of Southern Mississippi. Though overshadowed by more well-known figures from the mid-20th century civil rights movement, Kennard’s story is an integral part of the history of segregated Mississippi. It is the story of a seemingly ordinary person who courageously acted on his beliefs. Clyde Kennard deserves a permanent place in the annals of the civil rights struggle.
Public schooling in Mississippi did not become commonplace until after the American Civil War. After the United States Supreme Court decided in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that states could require separate public facilities for Black and White people as long as they were equal (the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine), White-dominated school boards began concentrating more of their efforts and funding on schools for White children, rather than for Black.
When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, compliance with this judicial ruling was met with much resistance in Mississippi. Even though most Mississippi schools had integrated peacefully by the mid-1970s, the integration of Mississippi schools was a long hard-fought battle that took place between the national government and state officials.