Abd ar-Rahman Ibrahima was a Fulbe Fulani prince from Timbo, the capital of Futa Jallon, a region in what is today the Republic of Guinea in West Africa. He was very well educated, having studied at the university in Timbuktu. He was captured and sold to transatlantic slave traders in 1788. Forced into bondage, he was brought to Natchez and made a manager of other enslaved people on a plantation. He was a devout Muslim, and a letter he wrote in Arabic made its way to the sultan of Morocco. Befriended by several influential people, including Henry Clay, a United States senator from Kentucky, he bought his own freedom after 40 years of slavery. Once free, he tried unsuccessfully to raise the money to liberate his nine children. Ibrahima and his wife returned to Africa and lived in Liberia for a short time before he died.
Jean-Baptiste LeMoynede Bienville, the brother of the French Canadian explorer Pierre LeMoyned’Iberville was with his brother’s crew that explored the Gulf of Mexico coast in 1699. The brothers established Fort Maurepas near present-day Ocean Springs, the first permanent European settlement in the Mississippi valley The capital would later be moved to Mobile, then Biloxi. When Iberville left for France, he left his brother in charge of the fort. Bienville explored the Bay of St. Louis and founded a garrison there. A skillful negotiator, Bienville persuaded the Natchez Indians to help build Fort Rosalie on the Mississippi River in 1716. He also founded New Orleans and moved the capital of the colony there in 1722, serving as governor Bienville also wrote Le Code Noir, the “black code” of laws that outlined how slaves were to be treated.
In 1682 the French explorer La Salle and his party were the first Europeans to record contact with the Natchez Indians The French established Fort Rosalie with help from the Natchez in 1716. Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz, a Frenchman who lived among the Natchez in the early 1720s, wrote about their way of life in three volume entitled Histoire de la Louisiane. An artist produced this illustration of a woman and her daughter from his description. Women primarily worked farming and gathering food while men hunted and fished. Inheritance was determined through the female line in Natchez culture. More about the Natchez may be seen at Emerald Mound and the Grand Village of the Natchez today. As the English and French struggled for control of the new world, the Natchez sided with the English and were defeated in a war with the French in 1729. Those who survived were forced to leave this area.
A widely respected chief of the Choctaw Indians, Pushmataha was born around 1764. He was well known as a skillful warrior and wise leader. By 1800, he had established a reputation as an eloquent speaker and successful negotiator, able to speak four languages. He led the Choctaws to support General Andrew Jackson and the American troops in the Battle of 1812 against English forces and their allies, the Creeks. He was made a brigadier general for his role. In 1820, however, when he represented the Choctaws at the Treaty of Doak’s Stand, he opposed Jackson. Chief Pushmataha rejected the idea of forcing his people to move west of the Mississippi River and attempted to secure a fair treaty. He traveled to Washington, D. C., with other Choctaw leaders in 1824 to seek compensation for lands granted them by the United States. During this trip, he became ill and died. He was granted full military honors and is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington.
Claiborne was born in Virginia in 1775. He studied law and moved to Tennessee to practice. He was elected to Congress from Tennessee and supported President Thomas Jefferson on several issues. In 1801, President Jefferson appointed him to be the second governor of the new Mississippi Territory, following Governor Winthrop Sargent. He soon moved the territorial capital from Natchez to Washington, a few miles away. Governor Claiborne helped to open the port of New Orleans for American trade on the Mississippi River and settle controversial land title disputes. He also secured the right to use the Natchez Trace as a mail route and is noted for setting a reward that led to the capture of the notorious Mason-Harpe gang of robbers on the roadway. When the Louisiana Purchase occurred in 1803, Claiborne was named governor of the new Louisiana Territory and moved to New Orleans. Claiborne County, Mississippi, is named for him.
David Holmes, a U. S. Representative from Virginia, was appointed the fourth and final governor of the Mississippi Territory in 1808 by President Thomas Jefferson. During his tenure, Jefferson College opened in Washington, Mississippi, the territorial capital. The Mississippi Territory at that time included both of the present-day states of Mississippi and Alabama. In 1816, Congress decided to divide the territory into two states. The western half would become the state of Mississippi. The constitutional convention was held in Washington, Mississippi, in 1817. David Holmes served as president of the convention and was elected the first governor of the new state. Natchez was made the state capital. Holmes served one term as governor, during which time the judicial system was established and the legislature organized. Holmes was appointed to the U. S. Senate in 1820, where he served until being re-elected governor in 1825. Holmes County, Mississippi, is named in his honor.
Among the small number of free black people living in antebellum Mississippi was William Johnson of Natchez. He was born enslaved in 1809 but was freed at age 11. As was true of most free blacks in Mississippi, Johnson was bi-racial—his father was white, and his mother was black. A barber by trade, he was a very successful man. He owned some 3,000 acres of land, a small number of slaves, and several business interests, including a bathhouse and a toyshop. From 1835 until his death in 1851, he kept a diary describing life in Natchez. He built a house on State Street, where the family lived upstairs and rented the downstairs to merchants. He and his wife had ten children. Johnson was murdered in a dispute over land. Today the William Johnson House, renovated by the National Park Service, is part of the Natchez National Historical Park.
Varina Howell was born in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1826. Privately tutored in her youth, she also attended finishing school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She met Jefferson Davis, a 36-year-old widower, when she was 17, and they were married a year later. Much of Varina Davis’s early married life was spent in Washington, D. C., as her husband served as a U. S. Senator from Mississippi and Secretary of War in President Franklin Pierce’s administration. When the South seceded in 1861 and Davis was elected president of the Confederate States of America, the couple moved to the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. They would have six children, but only one would outlive Varina Davis. When the Civil War ended and Davis was imprisoned in Georgia, they sent their children to live in Canada. After he was released, they moved to Gulfport, Mississippi, to Beauvoir, an estate on the Gulf of Mexico. After Davis died, his wife moved to New York City, supporting herself as a writer until she died in 1905. Link to Beauvoir
One of the most powerful political figures in Mississippi history, LQC Lamar was born in Georgia. He moved to Oxford, Mississippi, in 1849 to practice law. He taught for a tear at the University of Mississippi, where his father-in-law was chancellor, before returning to Georgia. He moved back to Mississippi in 1855 and was elected to serve in the United States Congress. In 1860, he left Congress to join the secession convention in Mississippi and drafted the Ordinance of Secession. Lamar served as a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army and later as a diplomat for the Confederacy. After the war, he resumed teaching at Ole Miss and also directed the law school. He served again in Congress from 1873 until 1877, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. President Grover Cleveland named him Secretary of the Interior in 1885 and appointed him associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1888, a post he held until his death.
Adelbert Ames, a native of Maine, was a brigadier general in the Union Army and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor at the Battle of Bull Run. He was appointed provisional governor of Mississippi in 1868 and commanded the fourth military district, which included Mississippi and Arkansas, under the provisions of federal Reconstruction. During his tenure, he appointed the first black citizens to public office in Mississippi history. When Mississippi was readmitted to the Union in 1870, he was appointed by the legislature to the United States Senate. In 1873 he ran for governor and, upon election, resigned his Senate seat. He served a tumultuous term as a Republican governor with a Democratic majority legislature. Discord and rancor over matters of race marked his administration. When the legislature brought politically-motivated impeachment charges against him, he resigned from office in a compromise, and the charges were dropped. He left the state for New York and, later, Massachusetts.
Hiram Revels was born in North Carolina in 1827. His father was a free man of mixed race ancestry, and his mother was white. He was apprenticed to a barber and studied for the ministry at seminaries in Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. Ordained in 1845 in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Revels served in the ministry in several states. When the Civil War began, he recruited black troops for the Union and served in Vicksburg, Mississippi, as a chaplain. After the war, he pastored churches in Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana before moving to Natchez, Mississippi. He was elected to the U. S. Senate in 1870, the first African American to serve in the Congress. He left the Senate to become the first president of Alcorn A&M College, Alcorn State University today. Revels also served as secretary of state of Mississippi and taught theology at Shaw University, now Rust College, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. He remained active in his church work until his death in 1901.
Born into slavery in 1847 near Vicksburg, Mississippi, Isaiah T. Montgomery lived on a plantation owned by Joseph Davis, the brother of Jefferson Davis. Davis permitted his slaves to be educated, and Montgomery learned to read and write at an early age. During the Civil War, the Davises fled the plantation, but the Montgomery family stayed and maintained the property. After the war, Davis sold his property to the Montgomerys, no longer slaves. The family was successful for a time, and Isaiah married in 1872. However, the business began to decline, and in 1877 Isaiah and his wife moved to Vicksburg. In 1887, they moved again, founding the all-black town of Mound Bayou as a commercial center for black farmers, a lifelong dream of Montgomery’s. He served as the founding mayor and engaged in several business enterprises. In a controversial move, Montgomery was elected the only black delegate to the Mississippi constitutional convention of 1890 and supported an amendment to disfranchise blacks and some whites. He remained active in entrepreneurial ventures and Republican politics and died in 1924.
A Texas native, James K. Vardaman moved with his family to Yalobusha County, Mississippi, in 1868. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1881. He set up a law practice in Winona and edited the local newspaper. Vardaman moved to Greenwood, where he continued to practice law and edited and later published the Greenwood Commonwealth. Elected to the Mississippi legislature in 1890, he was chosen speaker of the house and ran unsuccessfully for governor twice. He served in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, rising to the rank of major, and is shown here in his Army uniform. Vardaman was elected governor in 1905, serving one term, and after one failed attempt, was elected to the U. S. Senate in 1912. He was defeated for reelection because of his opposition to the United States’ entering World War I. A populist who supported such progressive causes as public health and ending the convict leasing system, Vardaman was also known for his white supremacist and racist beliefs. Later in life, he moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where he died in 1930.
Nellie Nugent was born in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1863 on her grandmother’s plantation. Her father was serving in the Confederate army when she was born, and her mother died when she was two. Although her father remarried, he was widowed again, then married again when his daughter was seven. Raised primarily by her grandmother, Nugent was a precocious child and attended Whitworth College, a boarding school, in Brookhaven at age 12. She graduated from Martha Washington College in Virginia. She married Robert Somerville in 1885, and they had four children. Somerville became active in women’s rights, was an officer in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and organized the Mississippi Women’s Suffrage Association. She also served as vice-president of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. In 1923, she became the first woman elected to the Mississippi legislature and served until 1927. Somerville helped to reorganize the state mental hospital and died in 1952. Her papers are in the Radcliffe College-Harvard University Library.
An outspoken populist known for his racist demagoguery, Theodore Bilbo was born on a farm near Poplarville, Mississippi. He was educated at Peabody College in Nashville, studied law at Vanderbilt University, and attended the University of Michigan. He taught school in Mississippi and was admitted to the practice of law. Elected to the Mississippi Senate in 1908 and lieutenant governor four years later, he served two terms as governor, from 1916-1920 and 1928-1932. Bilbo was also elected to the U. S. Senate in 1934, 1940, and 1946, although he died before taking office his final term. Among the progressive political positions he supported were the construction of the state highway system, a juvenile reformatory, the tuberculosis sanitorium, a charity hospital, and night schools for adults. He had a reputation for his fiery temper and his support of segregation and white supremacy. He acknowledged his membership in the Ku Klux Klan.
Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, Ida B. Wells was the oldest of eight children. Her parents and a younger sibling died in the Yellow Fever epidemic when she was 16. To support her family, she taught school and attended Rust College. She moved with her sisters to Memphis, and in 1884, on her way to work in a nearby town, she was asked by the train conductor to move to the smoking car. She refused and was forcibly removed. She sued and won her case, but it was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Wells began writing newspaper columns about her experience and became a vocal advocate for civil rights. She got a job as a teacher in Memphis and bought into a small newspaper. In 1892, three of her friends were lynched, and after her outspoken articles, her newspaper office was destroyed. Wells moved to New York, then Chicago, where she continued her crusade against injustice and worked on behalf of women’s suffrage. Wells married newspaper editor Ferdinand Barnett and had three children. She helped to found the NAACP, ran unsuccessfully for the legislature in 1930— one of the first black women to run for public office—and died a year later. Her autobiography was published in 1970.
The daughter of a Congressman and U. S. Senator, Ellen Sullivan Woodward would have a prominent public career, as well. Born in 1887 in Oxford, Mississippi, she was educated in Washington, D. C., and South Carolina. She married Albert Young Woodward and moved to Louisville, Mississippi. Her husband was a state legislator, and she was involved in civic activities. In 1925, her husband died, and she was elected to complete his term, the second women to so serve. With a young son to raise, she took a job with the Mississippi State Board of Development and soon was named executive secretary. A national Democratic committeewoman, Woodward became assistant administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Relief Administration during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. She created relief projects for unemployed women and was appointed administrator of the Works Progress Administration in 1935. In 1938, Woodward was named by Roosevelt to the Social Security Board and later served with the Federal Security Agency and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. She retired in 1954 after 28 years of federal service and died in 1971.
Born near McComb, Mississippi, in 1881, Hugh White attended the University of Mississippi. Intensely interested in business and politics, he was elected mayor of Columbia in 1926. A prosperous lumberman, he was successful in attracting manufacturing to Marion County when the Great Depression began. He was elected governor in 1935, having campaigned to help the state attract industry in the same way. He established the Balance Agriculture with Industry program to provide incentives to industries willing to locate in the state. White was also instrumental in creating a statewide highway construction program and the state highway patrol. From 1944 to 1948, White served in the Mississippi Legislature and in 1951 was elected to a second term as governor. During his second administration, school segregation was a major issue, and White developed a plan to consolidate school and improve black schools as an effort to thwart massive desegregation. White’s efforts failed as the Brown v Board of Education ruling declared racially separate schools were unconstitutional. White returned to his business interests when his term ended and died in 1965.
Known as “the father of public health in Mississippi,” Felix Underwood was born in Nettleton, Mississippi, in 1882. His mother died in childbirth when he was ten, an experience that encouraged him to go into medicine. He received his M. D. from the University of Tennessee and returned to his hometown to practice. He was elected president of the Mississippi State Medical Association in 1919 and served as president of the Southern Medical Association. In 1921, he was appointed director of the Bureau of Child Hygiene and Welfare in Jackson and three years later was named executive officer of the Mississippi State Board of Health. Among the advancements Underwood championed were free immunizations and water fluoridation. He provided public health treatment for such diseases as syphilis, tuberculosis, malaria, polio, and diphtheria. He helped establish Mississippi’s medical school and increase the number of hospitals and physicians. He also worked with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create a national health policy. Underwood died in 1959, in the office from which he had directed the health department for 34 years.
Born in 1882 in Missouri, Laurence Jones was from a family of educators. He graduated from the University of Iowa and accepted his first teaching job in Utica, Mississippi. In 1909, he was encouraged by a church in D’Lo, Mississippi, to start a school for poor black children in the area. He founded Piney Woods Country Life School in nearby rural Rankin County outdoors under a cedar tree with a fallen log as a desk. The first school building was an abandoned sheep shed. The curriculum included vocational as well as academic subjects. The school was chartered in 1913. Teachers, black and white, worked for little or no pay. The school managed a farm which supplied food as well as agricultural and carpentry experience for the students, who constructed many of the facilities on campus. Jones’s wife, Grace, a teacher, was instrumental in helping him build support for Piney Woods. They traveled the country talking of the school’s benefits and raising money, which funded an endowment. Jones was widely recognized for his educational leadership. He died in 1975.
James Meredith, left, and Medgar Evers are two of the most historic figures in Mississippi’s civil rights struggles. Evers helped Meredith in his effort to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962. He secured the NAACP’s legal team headed by Thurgood Marshall, who had won the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit, to assist Meredith. Evers himself had been denied admission to Ole Miss law school in 1954.
Evers, born in Decatur, Mississippi, in 1925, returned from service in World War II and enlisted at Alcorn A&M College. He married Myrlie Beasley of Vicksburg before graduating in 1951. They moved to Mound Bayou, where he sold insurance and began to work in voter registration. Named NAACP field secretary in 1954, he moved his family to Jackson, where he continued working for voting rights and the desegregation of schools and other public facilities, and speaking out against racial violence and injustice. Evers was murdered in his driveway early in the morning on June 12, 1963, as he arrived home from a rally. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His killer, Byron de la Beckwith, after two trials in 1964 that ended in hung juries, was finally convicted of his murder in 1994. His widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, would later chair the board of directors of the NAACP.
Meredith was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, in 1933. He served in the Air Force and spent two years at Jackson State College before attempting to enter the University of Mississippi. Opposed by Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, his enrollment triggered riots on the Ole Miss campus. Two people were killed and hundreds wounded on campus. Meredith graduated from the university, received a law degree from Columbia University in 1968. He was injured in 1966 as he led his March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson. Meredith worked in various business pursuits, wrote his memoirs, and became a Republican later in life and worked on the staff of Senator Jesse Helms. In 2002, the University of Mississippi honored him on the 40th anniversary of his enrollment there. Later that year, his son, Joseph, received a doctorate of business administration from Ole Miss. Tragically, Joseph died of a heart complication in 2008. Meredith lives in Jackson with his wife. He has a daughter and two sons.
When William Winter became governor of Mississippi in 1980, he invited two of Mississippi’s most respected cultural treasures to participate in the inaugural activities. Joining Winter in this photograph are, from left, author Eudora Welty, operatic soprano Leontyne Price, and First Lady Elise Winter.
Welty, born in Jackson in 1909, received every major literary award in America for her fiction. Known as a master of the short story, she also wrote novels, including Losing Battles and The Optimist’s Daughter, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1973. Her acclaimed memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, published by Harvard University Press, became the first bestseller in the history of the press. Welty was the first living writer to have her works published by the Library of America, assuring that they will always be in print. They have also been adapted for stage and screen. Also an accomplished photographer, her images of the Great Depression have been published and exhibited widely. Her home in Jackson, where she lived from 1926 until her death in 2001 and wrote every piece she published, is one of the nation’s most intact literary house museums and is a National Historic Landmark, administered by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Price is a native of Laurel and was born in 1927. She began piano lessons at age five and, as a student, accompanied school concerts. In 1944, she enrolled in the College of Educational and Industrial Arts in Ohio to study to become a music teacher. The college president heard her sing and encouraged her to major in voice. After graduation she studied at the Julliard School of Music in New York City on a full scholarship. She made her debut in Dallas as Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and toured in the production worldwide, gaining international recognition. Throughout her career, Price played to packed houses and rave reviews. She was particularly lauded for her title role in Verdi’s Aida. She debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, receiving a 42-minute ovation. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Kennedy Center Honors and has won numerous Grammy Awards for her vocal recordings.
Born in 1941 in Grenada, Mississippi, Lott attended the University of Mississippi for his undergraduate and law school educations. He began his public service career soon out of law school, serving as an administrative assistant to Mississippi Congressman William Colmer. When Colmer, a Democrat, retired, Lott ran for his seat as a Republican. He was successful in his bid, becoming part of a shift to a two-party political system in the South. In 1974, Lott and Thad Cochran of Mississippi became the first two Republicans reelected to the Congress since Reconstruction. He was elected Minority Whip in the House in 1981, serving in that position until 1989, when he was elected to succeed Senator John Stennis. In the Senate, he held major leadership positions, serving as Majority Whip, then Majority Leader, and then Senate Minority Whip as control of the Senate shifted from the Republicans back to the Democrats. He was the first person to have served as whip in both houses. Lott resigned from the Senate in 2002 and is a partner in a lobbying firm in Washington today.
The first woman to hold statewide office in Mississippi was Evelyn Gandy, elected state treasurer in 1959, then insurance commissioner in 1972, and finally lieutenant governor in 1975. She was twice defeated in races for governor. Born in Hattiesburg and a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, she was the only woman in her law school class at the University of Mississippi and the first woman to edit the Mississippi Law Journal. Active in Democratic Party politics all her life, she worked for Governor Theodore Bilbo just out of law school and was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1947. During her many years in public service Gandy supported advances in education, women’s rights, health care, and other human services. She died in 2007.
Gandy is seen here with Owen Cooper of Yazoo City, highly regarded businessman and civic leader. As executive director of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, he successfully built legislative support for rural hospitals and four-lane highways in Mississippi and helped establish Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi and Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company. He also founded Mississippi Chemical Company, a farmer-owned chemical cooperative, and First Mississippi Corporation, a venture capital company and the first state-based firm to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. He was a progressive leader, supporting civil rights, Head Start, and other social justice initiatives. Elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention and was named Baptist Layman of the Century by the Mississippi Baptist Convention.
Born in 1926, Phillip Martin was elected chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in 1979. He would serve seven consecutive four-year terms under the Choctaw democratic constitution. Martin transformed the prospects of Mississippi’s Choctaws from extensive poverty to economic self-sufficiency through extensive business development, creating jobs for thousands of people living on the reservation as well as throughout east-central Mississippi. Profits from the businesses were reinvested in education, housing, and health care for the Choctaw people, reducing their reliance on federal government support. In 1994, Chief Martin led in the establishment of the first tribal gaming operations, with casino, hotel, golf course, and resort properties in Philadelphia. Martin has been widely recognized for his leadership, especially in education and economic development, and served as president of both the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association and the United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc., an association of the 23 federally-recognized tribes in the eastern United States. Martin was succeeded as Choctaw chief in 2007 by Beasley Denson.