Community Profile

Oxford, MS: A Brief History

             by Katherine Aberle 

1830

Oxford, Mississippi was originally the native lands of the Chickasaw tribe. After the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830 under President Andrew Jackson, Chickasaw leaders and U.S. delegates strove to come to an agreement regarding the territory around Northern Mississippi. 

1832

European settlers began to occupy the Chickasaw lands in 1832, ignoring a provision of the Treaty of the Pontotoc Creek, which promised the U.S. government would prevent European settlement until the natives left the state. A 1836 treaty, the Chickasaw Indian Cession, led to the removal of most North Mississippi Indians. 

1836

In 1836, Lafayette County, named after the French hero of the American Revolution, Marquis de Lafayette, was created. The following year, three pioneers bought the land that is today Oxford from a female Chickasaw landowner, Hoka. They named the land after the prestigious English University with the hopes that Oxford, MS would be the intellectual hub of the state. 

1841

In 1841, the town was given the opportunity to create the state's first university by the Mississippi legislature. In 1848, the University of Mississippi opened its doors. 

Demographic Report 
1862

When the American Civil War erupted, the University, Oxford, and Mississippi suffered greatly. In 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant occupied the town with his 40,000 troops. 

1864

The most devastation, however, occurred in 1864 when Union General A.J. Smith ordered that Oxford be burned to the ground. Everything that once stood in the historic square, including the Lafayette County Courthouse, was destroyed. Most university buildings were spared because they were used as hospitals for both Union and Confederate soldiers. The war claimed the lives of many university students and Oxford residents. In time, the town recovered and the square was rebuilt. 

1902

In 1902, the family of William Faulkner settled in Oxford. Faulkner's fictionalized versions of Oxford and Lafayette County, which he called "Jefferson" and "Yaknapatawpha," has encouraged cultural tourists from around the world to visit his home, Rowan Oak. 

1962

In 1962, the University of Mississippi and Oxford attracted national attention due to violent riots protesting the integration of the university. State officials, including Governor Ross Barnett, prevented James Meredith, a black male, from enrolling, ignoring the demands of federal courts. President John F. Kennedy then ordered U.S. Marshals to escort Meredith on campus. The riots grew to a crowd of 3,000 and became increasingly violent. James Meredith graduated from the University, and a statue was erected on the campus in his honor. 

Photography by Martha Grace Lowry Mize 
                A Reflection on the History & Demographic Changes in Oxford & Lafayette County
                                                                             by George McDaniel 
                                                                                     Spring 2016

Oxford, Mississippi and the surrounding area of Lafayette County have undergone drastic changes since the area was settled in the 1830s. This was once an area dominated by farms, but today those farms have largely disappeared and are being rapidly replaced with new suburban subdivisions and apartment complexes to accommodate a population boom. In fact, “estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau for county and metro-area populations show Lafayette County had the highest percentage growth in the state.”[1] There are many reasons for this explosive growth, but perhaps the main reason is the success of the Ole Miss football team and other athletic programs for which people purchase condominiums just to come down and have a place to stay over football weekends. That being said, let us examine the numbers and the history, and explore just how dramatically this area has changed. 

The Chickasaw cession opened up the land that would become Lafayette County. After this land was opened up for settlement, wealthy families poured into the area to take advantage of the spoils. One of these men was John Peyton Jones, “who had settled very early in an area called Woodson’s Ridge, in the northern part of what would become Lafayette County . . . John Jones was one of the four commissioners appointed to organize the county and the inaugural meeting of the board of police was held in his home.”[2]  John P. Jones and his wife Tabitha had a daughter, Kate, who married another wealthy planter from Virginia named Jacob Thompson. After the passing of her parents, the Thompsons became one of the wealthiest and land-rich families in the area. Jacob built a mansion in Oxford for his family “directly across the street from Colonel Sheegog’s residence, later restored by William Faulkner and called Rowan Oak.”[3]  It is widely believed that William Faulkner based his famous Compson family on the Thompsons.  Though that house was burned when Union troops came through Oxford, the impact of the Thompson family on the visual geography of Oxford is still visible today. Jacob donated the land in the central cedar grove, now the Oxford Cemetery, which is where William Faulkner, and John Peyton Jones and his family are buried.

By examining the census data collected in 1850, one can begin to see how central farming and by extension slavery were to this area in its early days. In 1850, the total population of Lafayette County was 14,069. Of those, 8,346 (59.3%) were white and 5,723 (40.7%) were black. Of those African Americans, nearly all were enslaved. This large number of slaves is reflective of the fact that nearly half of all of the land in the area was being used for farming. A total of 274,952 acres of farmland dominated the area surrounding the young town of Oxford, which is essentially half of the land area of Lafayette County. This dominance of farming would continue after emancipation and well into the twentieth-century. If one jumps ahead to 1930, it is evident that the population remained relatively stable: whites accounted for 58.8% (11,741) of the total population of 19,978, and African Americans numbered 8,236 or 41.2% of the population. Additionally, the farming industry was still the main economic engine in the area with roughly 70% of the county (297,275 acres) being used for agriculture. Most of the families in the area were considered rural farm families and they made up approximately 75% of the population in the county. This was the land that Faulkner knew and wrote about during his lifetime. However, the area and its population would undergo dramatic changes in the coming decades.

By 1970, the population was reflective of changes that had occurred across the south during the “Great Migration” in addition to other economic factors.  

The total population numbered 24,181 with whites composing 71.7% (17,339) of the population,  African Americans  27.7% (6,705), and 137 individuals or 0.6% of the population identifying as "other." Farmers and farm managers decreased to 3.1% (244) of the population.While there was not data available for the acreage that was still being used as farmland, one can easily surmise that with the incredible drop in the farming population the acreage was greatly reduced from its once prominence.  Further still, the disparity of income between whites and African Americans reveals the inequalities that persist today. [4] 

 

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the population of Lafayette County is 50,256 with a population growth of 29.71% since 2000. While the population is still overwhelmingly a mixture of white (71.71%) and African American (24.29%) residents, there has been a slight increase in other races and ethnicities, including Hispanics (2.28%) and Asians (2.27%). One of the great changes that is occurring is that many lower income, predominantly African American families are being pushed out of the city limits of Oxford and into the county. The reason for this is that developers are moving in to build condominiums and apartments to take advantage of the explosive growth that is occurring. Much of this housing is too expensive for lower income families to afford and is therefore causing a great deal of tension within the community. What makes this doubly unfortunate is that a great deal of this housing is being bought by people who do not live in Oxford, and purchase these six-figure luxury condos for the purpose of having a place to stay on football weekends in the fall. Thus, longtime residents are being forced out into the county where there are less resources such as funding for schools and public transportation.  As such, although Oxford is showing the highest percentage of growth in the state, that growth is coming at a high price for many people whose families have lived here for generations.

Oxford and Lafayette County are interesting case studies since the spaces and places are particularly unique areas in Mississippi. Though it shares a history of slavery with the rest of the state and a farming economy, it has now turned into something else entirely. While the rest of the state of Mississippi, particularly the Delta, has struggled economically, Oxford seems to be thriving due in large part to the university and the economic engine that it provides. However, economic growth does not necessarily translate to benefits for all. One of the most striking visual examples of this can be seen in the map of the wards for Oxford’s Board of Alderman. Ward Four is the ward that includes the historic African American community of Freedman’s Town, but one need only look at the map to see what a convoluted construct it is (See supplemental data). 

[1] Rod Guajardo, Oxford Citizen, April 4, 2015.

[2] Joel Williamson, William Faulkner and Southern History (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1993), 125.

[3] Williamson, 126.

[4] https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/community_facts.xhtml# 

                                                                                                                                                                                                 Supplemental Data  

                                                                                                 

Mississippi 
Population and Housing Unit Counts 
2010 Census of Population and Housing

© 2017 Created by SST301