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Holmes County
Map of Mississippi highlighting Holmes County
Location within the U.S. state of Mississippi
Map of the United States highlighting Mississippi
Mississippi's location within the U.S.
Country  United States
State  Mississippi
Founded 1833
Named for David Holmes
Seat Lexington
Largest city Durant
 • Total 765 sq mi (1,980 km2)
 • Land 757 sq mi (1,960 km2)
 • Water 7.9 sq mi (20 km2)  1.0%
 • Total 19,198
 • Estimate 
 • Density 25.095/sq mi (9.689/km2)
Time zone UTC−6 (Central)
 • Summer (DST) UTC−5 (CDT)
Congressional district 2nd

Holmes County is a county in the U.S. state of Mississippi; its western border is formed by the Yazoo River and the eastern border by the Big Black River. The western part of the county is within the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. As of the 2010 census, the population was 19,198. Its county seat is Lexington. The county is named in honor of David Holmes, territorial governor and the first governor of the state of Mississippi and later United States Senator for Mississippi. A favorite son, Edmond Favor Noel, was an attorney and state politician, elected as governor of Mississippi, serving from 1908 to 1912.

Cotton was long the commodity crop; before the Civil War, its cultivation was based on slave labor and the majority of the population consisted of enslaved African Americans. Planters generally developed their properties along the riverfronts. After the war, many freedmen acquired land in the bottomlands of the Delta by clearing and selling timber to raise the purchase price, but most lost their land during difficult financial times at the end of the century, becoming tenant farmers or sharecroppers. With an economy based on agriculture, the county had steep population declines from 1940 to 1970, due to mechanization of farm labor, and the second wave of the Great Migration. African Americans migrated from the Deep South especially to West Coast cities, where jobs were plentiful in the buildup of the defense industry.

Some African Americans had reacquired land in Holmes County in the 1940s under New Deal programs. By 1960, Holmes County's 800 independent black farmers owned 50% of the land, a higher number of such farmers than elsewhere in the state. They were integral members of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. In 1967, eight of ten black candidates to run for local county office were landowning farmers; they were the first African Americans to run for office in the county since Reconstruction. Holmes had more candidates running for offices for the Freedom Democratic Party than did any other county.

Robert G. Clark, Jr., a teacher in Holmes County, was elected as state representative in 1967, the first black to be elected to state government in the 20th century. He served as the only African American in the state house until 1976. He continued to be re-elected to the state legislature from Holmes County until 2003. In the late 20th century, he was elected to the first of three terms as Speaker of the state House.


The western border of the county is formed by the Yazoo River; it is next to the Mississippi Delta, and shares its characteristics. The eastern border is formed by the Big Black River and the eastern part has hills. The county was developed for cotton plantations in the antebellum era before the American Civil War, with most properties of the period located along the riverfronts for transportation access. Due to the plantation economy and reliance on slave labor, the county was majority black before the Civil War.

"According to U.S. Census data, the 1860 Holmes County population included 5,806 whites, 10 “free colored” and 11,975 slaves. By the 1870 census, the white population had increased about 6% to 6,145, and the “colored” population had increased about 10% to 13,225." After the war, many freedmen and white migrants went to Holmes County and other parts of the Mississippi Delta, where they developed the bottomlands behind the riverfront properties, clearing and selling timber in order to buy their own lands. Workers were also attracted to the Delta area by higher than usual wages on the plantations, which had a labor shortage in the transition to a free labor economy.

By the turn of the 20th century, a majority of the landowners in the Delta counties were black. Effectively blacks were disenfranchised by the new constitution of 1890; the loss of political power added to their economic problems associated with the financial Panic of 1893. Unable to gain credit, many of the first generations of African-American landowners lost their properties by 1920. In this period, they were also competing for land with the better-funded timber and railroad companies. Afterward, the blacks were forced to become sharecroppers or tenant farmers.

White planters continued to recruit labor in the area, as freedmen wanted to work on their own account. The first Chinese immigrant laborers entered the Delta in the late 1870s. From 1900-1930, additional Chinese immigrants arrived in Mississippi, including some to Holmes County. They worked hard to leave field labor and often became merchants, especially becoming grocers in the small Delta towns. As their socioeconomic status changed, the Chinese Americans carved out a niche "between black and white", gaining admission to white schools for their children through court challenges. With the decline of small towns, most moved to larger cities through the 20th century. In Mississippi, the number of ethnic Chinese has increased overall in the state through 2010, although it is still small in total - fewer than 5,000.

During the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration worked through the Farmers Home Administration to provide low-interest loans in order to increase black land ownership. They also established a co-op cotton gin to be used by farmers in the project. In Holmes County, numerous blacks became landowners through this program in the 1930s and 1940s. They were fiercely independent and were among strong supporters of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, even as whites kept a grip on economic and political power through banks, police and the county courthouse. Although there had been outmigration, the population was still 42% black.

The USDA Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), established under another name in the 1930s, carried out its programs on a county-wide level, with county boards elected annually by farmers to work on local programs, approval of loans to farmers and similar issues. Although blacks made up a large portion of landowners in Holmes County, they had been excluded from the board and were generally deprived of potential benefits through this program, as part of the pattern of discrimination against them.

Beginning in the World War II period, the population of Holmes County declined markedly from its peak of 1940; through 1970 thousands left, with most African Americans going to the West Coast or in Midwestern cities in the second wave of the Great Migration. From 1950 to 1960, for instance, some 6,000 blacks left the county, a decline of nearly 19%. But in 1960 the county was still 72% black, with a total population of 27,100.

Even with these problems, in 1960 Holmes County had more independent black farmers than did any other county in the state: 800 black farmers owned 50% of the land in the county. They were among those who initiated the civil rights movement, particularly farmers of Mileston, where the soil was rich. They invited organizers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to come to Mileston to help them take action. The majority of the first fourteen blacks who attempted to register to vote on April 9, 1963 were landowners. Holmes County became the site of renewed organizing of grassroots efforts for African-American civil rights, with people designated as responsible for its Beats and precincts.

In 1954 some whites formed the White Citizens Council, expressly to oppose desegregation of public schools after the United States Supreme Court decision that year in Brown v. Board of Education, finding segregation to be unconstitutional. They raised funds to support white-only schools, and conducted economic boycotts of blacks suspected of civil rights activism, as well as social and political pressure against whites who crossed them. Among their targets in the latter category was Hazel Brannon Smith, publisher and editor of two local papers. For three years, her customers resisted the Council's effort to boycott her and cut out her advertising; the Council started a rival newspaper to try to take away her business. Opponents arranged for her husband to be fired from his job as county hospital administrator, and a group firebombed two of her papers. She received a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1964 for her editorials about the civil rights movement during this period.

The Freedom Democratic Party was organized in 1964 to work on black voter registration and education, and continued after passage of civil rights laws. For instance, where white Democratic Party officials had defined the very large Lexington precinct, which held the majority of population, the county chapter of the FDP organized its own sub-precincts within it in order to communicate better with its community. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were important but had to be implemented on the local level, where resistance was strong, sometimes becoming violent.

The FDP worked with residents to register African-American voters and encourage them to vote. Resistance continued to black voter registration by white officials. In November 1965 a federal registrar was assigned to the county, based on residents' petitions about the circuit clerk's discrimination over a 4-month period; 2,000 black voters were registered in two months.

The FDP had also worked with local people to run for positions on the ASCS board. In the fall of 1965 six black farmers were elected to the county board, with four as alternates. This gave them a place for determining how local programs would run. Discrimination in USDA programs was continuing and widespread, as shown by the settlement of the class-action suit, Pigford v. Glickman in 1999, with payments continuing into the 21st century.

In 1966 many communities in the county concentrated on setting up the new federal Head Start program for young children. The FDP continued to work with other communities on correcting unfair hiring at factories and unequal administration of welfare, as well as trying to end discrimination at eating places. From 1966 on, the FDP registered an increasing number of black voters and gained their participation in elections. By November 1967, nearly 6,000 new voters were registered in the county.

In 1967 black farmers and landowners, who had been part of the Movement since the early 1960s, made up eight of the ten candidates who ran for local and state offices: Thomas C. "Top Cat" Johnson, Ed Noel McGaw, Jr., Ward Montgomery, John Malone, Willie James Burns, John Daniel Wesley, Griffin McLaurin and Ralthus Hayes. McLaurin was elected as constable of one of the beats in the county.

Robert G. Clark (born 1928) and Robert Smith, both teachers, had joined the Movement in 1966 and ran for state representative and county sheriff, respectively. Clark was a member of a landowning family in Ebenezer; he had a master's degree and had nearly finished his PhD from University of Michigan. He won a seat as the first and only black elected in 1967 to the Mississippi House of Representatives. By 2000, Clark had been re-elected to eight four-year terms in the state house and had been elected as Speaker three times since 1992. It was not until 1976 that another African American was elected to the state legislature, but then the number increased. Several were elected to local offices in Holmes County well before that.

Whites have also left the county since the mid-20th century because of declining opportunity. Agribusinesses have bought up large tracts of land, and the number of independent farmers has declined markedly. By 2010, the total population was less than half that of 1940. Still largely rural, Holmes County in the 21st century has problems associated with poverty and limited access to health care; it has the lowest life expectancy of any county in the United States, for both men and women.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 765 square miles (1,980 km2), of which 757 square miles (1,960 km2) is land and 7.9 square miles (20 km2) (1.0%) is water.

Major highways

  • I-55.svg Interstate 55
  • US 49.svg U.S. Route 49
  • US 51.svg U.S. Route 51
  • Circle sign 12.svg Mississippi Highway 12
  • Circle sign 14.svg Mississippi Highway 14
  • Circle sign 17.svg Mississippi Highway 17
  • Circle sign 19.svg Mississippi Highway 19

Adjacent counties

National protected areas


Historical population
Census Pop.
1840 9,452
1850 13,928 47.4%
1860 17,791 27.7%
1870 19,370 8.9%
1880 27,164 40.2%
1890 30,970 14.0%
1900 36,828 18.9%
1910 39,088 6.1%
1920 34,513 −11.7%
1930 38,534 11.7%
1940 39,710 3.1%
1950 33,301 −16.1%
1960 27,096 −18.6%
1970 23,120 −14.7%
1980 22,970 −0.6%
1990 21,604 −5.9%
2000 21,609 0.0%
2010 19,198 −11.2%
2018 (est.) 17,622 −8.2%
U.S. Decennial Census
1790-1960 1900-1990
1990-2000 2010-2013

From 1940 until 1970, the county had major declines in population as many blacks left the state in the Great Migration. Whites have also left as economic opportunities were limited in the rural county.

2020 census

Holmes County Racial Composition
Race Num. Perc.
White 2,359 13.88%
Black or African American 14,194 83.49%
Native American 36 0.21%
Asian 20 0.12%
Pacific Islander 3 0.01%
Other/Mixed 279 1.64%
Hispanic or Latino 112 0.66%

As of the 2020 United States Census, there were 17,000 people, 6,188 households, and 3,722 families residing in the county.

2010 census

As of the 2010 United States Census, there were 19,198 people living in the county, less than half than at the peak of population in 1940. 83.4% were Black or African American, 15.6% White, 0.2% Asian, 0.1% Native American, 0.1% of some other race and 0.6% of two or more races. 0.7% were Hispanic or Latino (of any race).




Unincorporated communities


  • Colleges
    • Holmes Community College (Goodman)
  • Elementary and secondary schools

During the segregation years, when black public schools were historically underfunded, Lexington in 1918 was the site for the founding of a private school for black students affiliated with the Church of God in Christ. It became known as Saints Academy. Arenia Mallory was hired as a young music teacher and later was selected as principal in 1926. She expanded the school to serve more students, ultimately with classes in grades 1-12. Conducting fund raising outside the state, she promoted a strong academic education with Christian discipline, and her school was nationally known. She led it until her death in 1977, ultimately establishing an associated junior college. The Academy continued until 2006.

During the period of integration of public schools in Mississippi in the late 1960s, many white parents in the majority-black Delta enrolled their children in newly established private segregation academies, as they did in Holmes County. But statewide most white children remained in public schools. In Holmes County, blacks had become well-organized. But in other areas they lost control of their schools, with administrations often dominated by whites, resulting in new problems after integration.

  • Public Schooling
    • Holmes County Consolidated School District
  • Private schools
    • Central Holmes Christian School (Lexington) (formerly Central Holmes Academy, founded as a segregation academy).
    • Old Dominion Christian School
    • Pillow Academy in unincorporated Leflore County, near Greenwood, enrolls some students from Holmes County. It originally was founded as a segregation academy.
    • East Holmes Academy, A segregation academy that made national news in 1989 for offering to forfeit a game because the other school had a black player. Closed 2006.

Notable people

  • Homer Casteel, politician and public servant; lieutenant governor 1920 to 1924; member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission from 1936 to 1952.
  • Robert G. Clark, Jr., teacher, coach and politician; in 1967 he was elected to the state legislature as the first African-American member since Reconstruction; he was elected to eight consecutive four-year terms and as Speaker of the state House in 1992, 1996 and 2000.
  • Perry Wilbon Howard, attorney and Republican Party National Committeeman, was appointed to a national position in the Department of Justice under President Warren G. Harding, serving into Herbert Hoover's administration. He was the highest-ranking African American in government.
  • Arenia Mallory, principal and president of Saints Academy. She had a more than 50-year career with this school, which she built into an academically successful, nationally known private school for black children during the segregation years, also expanding to a junior college. A leader in African-American women's national organizations, she served in the John F. Kennedy administration.
  • Edmond Favor Noel, Governor of Mississippi, 1908–1912, was born to a planter family in Lexington. He became an attorney and politician, serving in the state house and then the state senate both before and after his tenure as governor. He improved education in the state.
  • Edmond F. Noel Sr (1916-1986), physician, born in Holmes County and reared in Jackson, Mississippi, was a Howard University and Fisk University graduate, and a World War II veteran. Recruited to practice in Denver, Colorado in 1949, he was the first African-American physician in the city to be granted staff hospital privileges.
  • Edmond "Eddie" F. Noel (1926-1990), was born and lived in Lexington. An African-American veteran of World War II, he killed three white men in January 1954, including a deputy sheriff, and evaded capture for three weeks, making national news. He was hunted by numerous men, dogs, and even observers in planes. He turned himself in to the court, and the judge ordered a mental evaluation. Noel was committed by the court to the state mental institution, where he was held for more than a decade. He was released in 1970 and lived his last 20 years with his family, who had migrated to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
  • Hazel Brannon Smith, publisher and journalist, in 1935 purchased The Durant News and The Lexington Advertiser in Lexington; she published them for decades and was noted in the region for her fair coverage and later support of civil rights. She opposed the White Citizens Council, which conducted an advertising boycott against her papers. In 1964 she was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, for her editorials on civil rights, the same year her paper in Jackson, The Northside Reporter, was firebombed. She was forced out of business.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Condado de Holmes (Misisipi) para niños

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