DeSoto County

Founded in 1836, DeSoto County has become one of the fastest growing counties in Mississippi and the nation. The county is part of the Metropolitan Memphis Statistical Area, which includes counties in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. The county and the county seat of Hernando are named for Hernando de Soto, a Spanish explorer who allegedly died in the area in 1542. Other cities in DeSoto County include Horn Lake, Olive Branch, Southaven, and Village of Memphis. 

In 1840, the county had a population of 14,002, according to the United States Census. Ten years later, the population of the town increased by 172% to 19,042. The county is a total of 497 square miles, with 96.2% being land.

On February 20, 1960, the Chicago Defender reported that rumors spread about a white man, Alton West, being a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He lived south of Memphis in Lake Cormorant in DeSoto County with his family on a dairy farm. He tried to combat the rumors, but people burned down his house and his farm to chase him out of town.

In August of 1960, Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (MSSC) spoke with the County Supervisor, Hoyt Austin, who said he purchased a building in DeSoto County that African Americans used for NAACP meetings to prevent further meetings. Most other city and county officials told the MSSC that there was little or no civil rights activity in the area. The MSSC placed eight residents on a list of possible NAACP members who were potential troublemakers: A. E. West (sometimes also called A. O. West in the MSSC files), Chester Anthony and Edward Anthony of Lake Cormorant; Oscar Williams, Clarence Wilson, and Jesse Wallace of Walls; and Miss O. S. Bates and Leonard Bates, sister- and brother-in-law of Daisy Bates who were also from Lake Cormorant.

In September of 1960, the MSSC sent investigator Tom Scarbrough to visit DeSoto County’s James H. Berry, a sixty-five year old African American who attempted to register to vote a number of times. He lived “about 9 miles from Holly Springs” and owned about eighty acres of land. His wife was fifty-five years old and was about to complete college. Berry stated that “his only interest in voting was for the fact that he had been a tax payer for many years and felt it h[i]s duty to be able to vote for [p]ublic officials who had performed accommodations for him.” He attempted to register on a number of occasions, but did not pass the voting requirements and did not receive threats or intimidation for trying to register. Although Berry said that he did not belong to any subversive organizations and that nobody had pressured or coerced him to vote, Scarbrough did not believe him and believed either his educated wife or another group had encouraged him. Scarbrough also noted that white people described him as a “smart aleck type of Negro” and suggested that Berry be filed as a “possible future agitator.”

In 1961, Scarbrough returned to DeSoto County and was assured by county and city officials that no African Americans attempted to register to vote since Berry and that no Citizens’ Council had formed. All teachers, black and white, had to take a loyalty oath and disclose their memberships to any organizations. The officials explained that any “would-be agitators” would probably come from Memphis, since there was a flow of workers to and from the area.

In November of 1962, after the violent integration of the University of Mississippi, Leon Lowry spoke with the MSSC in Olive Branch in DeSoto County. Lowry, a member of the State Board of Institutions of Higher Learning, wanted to know who gave a soldier authority to fire into one of the men’s dormitory buildings with live ammunition. He also wanted the names of faculty and students who ate with James Meredith in the cafeteria. Finally, he asked for an investigation on Professor Russell H. Barrett, who allegedly said that all students who participated in the riot should be expelled and that some of them should even have been gunned down. Lowry wanted Professor Barrett’s students to be interviewed, and the MSSC explained that an investigation was already under way.

On June 5, 1966, James Meredith began his “March Against Fear” to protest racism. He began in Memphis, Tennessee, and planned to continue 220 miles to Jackson, Mississippi. At the twenty-sixth mile of the march on Highway 51, just south of Hernando, Aubrey Norvell stood in the roadside brush and fired three times at Meredith. It was later reported that doctors had to remove about seventy shotgun pellets from Meredith’s head, neck, and body. Meredith was rushed to the hospital and about fifteen law officers apprehended Norvell.

While Meredith was unable to complete his march, other civil rights leaders continued in tribute to Meredith. With their arms linked, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Floyd McKissick, and Stokely Carmichael resumed the walk where Meredith left off on Highway 51 in Hernando. Other marchers, reporters, and Mississippi state troopers were also present that day. Citizens in Desoto County are currently making efforts to erect a marker at the place at which Meredith was shot and these events took place. Read more at the page for Meredith’s March Against Fear.

In 2000, the population of DeSoto County was 107,199, according to the United States Census. In 2005 census estimates, the racial makeup of the county was 85.78% white, 11.40% black or African American, 2.35% Hispanic or Latino of any race, 0.28% Native American, 0.62% Asian, 0.04% Pacific Islander, 1.13% from other races, and 0.76% from two or more races. As of the 2010 census, the population was 161,252, which marked a 50.4% increase from 2000. Southaven’s population grew by 69% between 2000 and 2010. DeSoto county’s proximity to Memphis and the gambling district of Tunica County has lent to its massive growth, as it is one of the forty fastest growing counties in the country. Although the county receives new residents as white flight occurs out of Memphis, the percentage of African Americans has also increased in recent years from an estimated 11.4% in 2005 to approximately 22.8% in 2011. 

Sources:

DeSoto County Geneological Society, “About DeSoto County: A Brief History of DeSoto County,” DeSoto County, Mississippihttp://www.desotoms.com/about

“DeSoto County, Mississippi,” Wikipedia, 11 October 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DeSoto_County,_Mississippi.

“History and Significant Dates,” City of Horn Lake, 2011, http://www.hornlake.org/visiting-here/our-history/

“March Against Fear,” Wikipedia, 30 May 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_Against_Fear

“Sovereignty Commission Online: DeSoto County,” Mississippi Department of Archives and Historyhttp://mdah.state.ms.us/arrec/digital_archives/sovcom/imagelisting.php?foldercheckbox%5B%5D=491%7C2%7C130%7C%7C0&searchimages=Submit+Query.

“State and County QuickFacts: DeSoto County, Mississippi,” United States Census Bureau, 18 September 2012, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/28/28033.html.

“Visiting Here,” City of Horn Lake, 2011, http://www.hornlake.org/visiting-here/