Welcome to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. With a population of nearly 50,000 and the fourth largest city in the state, Hattiesburg is centrally located less than 90 minutes from New Orleans and Mobile, the Gulf Coast and Jackson, Mississippi.
Hattiesburg, known as “The Hub City”, is a city in Forrest and Lamar Counties in the U.S. state of Mississippi. It is the principal city of the Hattiesburg, Mississippi Metropolitan Statistical Area which encompasses Forrest, Lamar and Perry counties. The MSA population exceeded 150,000 as a result of a 10% increase following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005; also, Hattiesburg itself surpassed Biloxi post-Katrina to become Mississippi’s third largest city. It has an incorporated suburb, Petal, and an unincorporated area, Oak Grove. It is the county seat of Forrest County, but the city has grown in recent years to include a portion of eastern Lamar County. Hattiesburg is home to The University of Southern Mississippi (originally known as Mississippi Normal College) and William Carey University (formerly William Carey College). Just south of Hattiesburg is Camp Shelby, the largest National Guard training base east of the Mississippi River.
Hattiesburg is positioned at the fork of the Leaf and Bouie Rivers, Hattiesburg was founded in 1882 by Captain William H. Hardy, pioneer lumberman and civil engineer. Early settlers to the area were of Scottish, Irish, and English descent who came from Georgia and the Carolinas, attracted by the vast area of virgin pine timberlands.
The city of Hattiesburg was incorporated in 1884 with a population of approximately 400. Originally called Twin Forks and later Gordonville, Hardy gave the city its final name of Hattiesburg, in honor of his wife Hattie.
Citizens Bank at 601 Main Street, circa 1965.Also in 1884, the railroad, known as the Southern Railway System, was built from Meridian, Mississippi through Hattiesburg to New Orleans. The completion of the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad from Gulfport, Mississippi to Jackson, Mississippi, now part of the Illinois Central System, ran through Hattiesburg and ushered in the real lumber boom in 1897. Though it was 20 years in the building, the railroad more than fulfilled its promise. It gave the state a deep water harbor, more than doubled the population of towns along its route, built the City of Gulfport and made Hattiesburg a railroad center.
Hattiesburg gained its nickname, the Hub City, in 1912 as a result of a contest in a local newspaper. This suggestion came because the city was the intersection of a number of important rail lines. Later the city also became the intersection of state highways U.S. Highway 49, U.S. Highway 98 and U.S. Highway 11, and later, Interstate 59. Hattiesburg is centrally located less than 100 miles from the state capital of Jackson as well as the Mississippi Gulf Coast, New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.
The region around Hattiesburg was also involved in the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. In the 1960s, two nuclear devices were detonated in the salt domes near Lumberton, Mississippi, about 28 miles southwest of Hattiesburg. Extensive follow-up of the area by the EPA has not revealed levels of nuclear contamination in the area that would be harmful to humans.
Throughout the 20th Century, Hattiesburg benefited from the founding of Camp Shelby (now a military mobilization center), two major hospitals, and two colleges, The University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey University. This growing metropolitan area that includes Hattiesburg, Forrest and Lamar Counties, was designated a Metropolitan Statistical Area in 1994 with a combined population of more than 100,000 residents.
Despite being about 75 miles (120 km) inland, in 2005, Hattiesburg was hit very hard by Hurricane Katrina. Around 10,000 structures in the area received major damage of some type. Approximately 80 percent of the city’s roads were blocked by trees and power was out in the area for up to 14 days. The storm killed 24 people in Hattiesburg and the surrounding areas. The city is strained by a large influx of temporary evacuees and new permanent residents from coastal Louisiana and Mississippi towns to the south, where damage from Katrina was catastrophic.
The City is also known for its Police Department, as it was the first, and for almost a decade the only, CALEA federally accredited law enforcement agency in the State of Mississippi. The department is serviced by its own training academy, which has traditionally been one of the most difficult basic academies in the country with over a 50% attrition rate.
The Hattiesburg Zoo has become a major attraction in the city as it continues to add attractions each year.
Birthplace of Rock and Roll
Some have claimed Hattiesburg as the historic birthplace of rock and roll. This idea stems from an essay written in 1976 by respected blues scholar Robert Palmer, in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. Palmer referred to 1936 recordings made in Hattiesburg, reportedly at the train station, by Blind Roosevelt Graves, his brother Uaroy and pianist Cooney Vaughn, billed as the Mississippi Jook Band. He stated that they “…featured fully formed rock and roll guitar riffs and a stomping rock and roll beat.” Palmer did not conclude from this that Hattiesburg was the birthplace of rock and roll, and indeed went on to state that “it is possible, with the help of a little hindsight, to find rock roots at almost every stratum of American folk and popular music during the mid-Thirties.” The Hattiesburg recordings were very rhythmic, but are of unamplified instruments, in many respects typical of Southern rural “jook bands” of the period. They are nevertheless historically important as exemplifying one of the many elements which led to the development of rock and roll over the subsequent twenty years.
Civil Rights Movement in Hattiesburg
Hattiesburg and the unincorporated African American community of Palmers Crossing played a key role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. In 1959, black Korean War veteran Clyde Kennard applied to attend then all-white Mississippi Southern College (today University of Southern Mississippi). He was denied admission on account of his race, and when he persisted the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission conspired to have him framed for a crime he did not commit. He was sentenced to seven years in Parchman Prison. For years, NAACP leaders Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer and other Forrest County civil rights activists fought to overturn this miscarriage of justice.
Forrest County Registrar Theron Lynd prevented blacks from registering to vote. Thirty percent of the population was black but less than 1% of them were on the voting rolls, while white registration was close to 100%. In 1961, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against Lynd and he became the first southern registrar to be convicted under the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for systematically violating African American voting rights.
In 1962, SNCC began one of its first voter-registration projects in Hattiesburg under the auspices of COFO. In cooperation with the NAACP and local civil rights leaders they formed the Forrect County Voters League. In conjunction with the 1963 elections, civil rights leaders organized a statewide “Freedom Ballot,” a mock election that demonstrated both the state-wide pattern of voting rights discrimination and the strong desire of Mississippi blacks for full citizenship. Despite the serious risk of both physical and economic retaliation, almost half of Forrest County blacks participated, the highest turnout in the state.
January 21, 1964, was “Freedom Day” in Hattiesburg, a major voter registration effort supported by student demonstrators and 50 northern clergymen. For the first time since Reconstruction an inter-racial protest was allowed to picket the courthouse for voting rights without being arrested. Roughly 100 African Americans attempted to register, though only a few were allowed into the courthouse and fewer still were added to the rolls. Each day thereafter for many months the courthouse protest was resumed in what became known as the “Perpetual Picket.”
During Freedom Summer in 1964, the Hattiesburg/Palmers Crossing project was the headquarters for all civil rights activity in the 5th Congressional District and the largest and most active site in the state with more than 90 volunteers and 3,000 local participants. Hundreds of Forrest County blacks tried to register to vote at the courthouse, but most were prevented from doing so. More than 650 children and adults attended one of the seven Freedom Schools in Hattiesburg and Palmers Crossing, three freedom libraries were set up with donated books, and a community center was established. Many whites opposed civil rights efforts by blacks, and both summer volunteers and local African Americans endured arrests, beatings, firings, and evictions.
Forrest County was also a center of activity for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) which sent a slate of delegates to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City to challenge the seating of the all-white, pro-segregation delegates elected by the regular party in primaries that African Americans could not participate in. Victoria Jackson Gray of Palmers Crossing ran on the MFDP ticket against incumbent Senator John Stennis and John Cameron of Hattiesburg ran for Representative in the 5th District. With blacks still denied the vote, they knew they could not be elected, but their candidacies and campaigns advanced the struggle for voting rights.
On the night of January 10, 1966, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan attacked the Hattiesburg home of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer with firebombs and gunfire. Dahmer was the most prominent black leader in the county and been the primary civil rights leader for many years. Just prior to the attack, he had announced that he would help pay a $2 poll tax for black voters too poor to do so themselves. Dahmer held off the Klan with his rifle to give his wife, three young children, and elderly aunt time to escape their burning home, but he died of burns and smoke inhalation the next day. His murder sparked large protest marches in Hattiesburg. A number of Klansmen were arrested for the crime and four were eventually convicted. After four previous trials had ended in deadlocks, KKK Imperial Wizard Samuel Bowers was finally convicted in August, 1998 for ordering the assassination of Dahmer. He was sentenced to life in prison.