Sumner, Mississippi—A Brief History
Sumner was a heavily wooded swamp when Joseph Burton Sumner, his wife, and six children arrived from Alabama in the early 1870s and settled on land that had been part of the Choctaw Nation. Other families in the area at the time were the Fergusons, Webbs, McGlauns, Jenkins, Friersons, Smiths, Coopers, and Andersons. When the men of the community began clearing the land in 1873, the area was completely covered by trees, vines, and underbrush and literally infested with bears, panthers, alligators, deer, wild cats, beavers, coons, and snakes. The area was swampy and even in the summer the land, which was low, would not drain because the beavers had built dams in the bracken. Canes and cypress trees abounded in a bayou that ran through what became the town of Sumner.
Named after Mr. Wiley B. Cassidy, a timber man who lived in the vicinity of the bayou in 1839, Cassidy Bayou flows southward, meandering crookedly from Coldwater River through Quitman, Coahoma, and Tallahatchie counties. By boat, Cassidy Bayou measures 175 miles, making it the longest bayou in the state. A navigable stream, it was an alternate market route for cotton, the principal product, when the weather was too bad to drive the wagons over the roads. Cotton was hauled onto barges and flat boats to the mouth of the bayou, from where it was then taken by steamboats to market.
Cassidy Bayou is claimed to be haunted. In intervals of twenty-five years the ghost has appeared at the home of Mr. Boone Jenkins, a farmer living one mile north of Sumner. Each appearance is accompanied by weird voices and the shriek of a woman. People who have followed the voice say that it leads to the bayou, and, in some instances to the Indian mounds in the vicinity. The mystery of the Cassidy ghost has never been solved. One of the late Mr. Jenkins’s daughters, Louise Thomas, said that she heard these voices and saw many strange sights. Her father would be on the front porch rocking, and would hear someone rocking in the living room. On investigating, he would find the room empty. He also has been in the living room and would hear rocking sounds on the porch. When he would go out there, it would be empty. Since the old home burned and was replaced by another house, all the sounds have disappeared.
The Mississippi Delta’s heat and humidity drew mosquitoes and the diseases they carried to the settlers. Often the men farming here left their wives in more hospitable parts, such as the hills in North Mississippi.
Floods also contributed to the difficulties of inhabitants. During 1881, 1882, and 1883, there were disastrous overflows and Sumner residents were compelled to go in dugouts to Webb for their supplies. These floods periodically continued and in 1927,1932, and 1937 Sumner had high water. Some of the people on the east side of the bayou had to move out of their houses; others had to go by boats to town. In 1932, A.J. Sumner, Sergeant of Weights and Measures for the State Penitentiary at Parchment, brought a number of prisoners to Sumner to build a levee completely surrounding the Sumner School. This levee was removed in 1947.
In spite of these hardships, Sumner prospered.
In 1885, J.B. Sumner built a frame building and opened it as a general store and in 1891, a post office. Mr. Sumner was the first postmaster.
In 1886, fired by wood, the first steam cotton gin was built by Joseph Sumner. Earlier he had built a horse-powered gin at the north end of Cassidy Street. Very soon after Sumner built his gin, two others were built.
Mr. Sumner donated the land for the right-of-way and park to the Railroad Company in 1888. The Railroad began operation but the company built only a platform with a small ticket office. In the hope that he could get help in building a depot, Joseph Sumner sold an interest to Captain Jennings of Water Valley and a depot was erected in 1892. In 1918 the Railroad Company sold the park to the Breland and Whitten law firm, where they built their office. The railroad was an important link to other Mississippi towns and to Memphis, which was the gateway to the rest of the country. However, as roads and automobiles improved, passenger trains no longer ran through Sumner and finally, in about 1959, the depot was torn down.
In the late 19th century the Simpsons, Mitcheners, Bufords, Robertsons, McMullens, Biles, Wards, Tates, and Reddings moved to Sumner.
Sumner was incorporated in 1900 and named for its founder, who was made the first mayor. Tallahatchie County, in which Sumner is located, was named after the Tallahatchie River, which means “water of the rock” and divides the county. Following the river, the county was divided into two districts with Sumner as the county seat of the west district. At a cost of $20,000, the courthouse was built in 1902 on a lot donated by Mr. Sumner, who also gave the lot for the jail. The courthouse burned in 1908 and was rebuilt in 1909. The Sumner courthouse was the site of the 1955 Emmett Till murder trial.
Early on there was a four-month-term school and Union Church for the community at Brooklyn Cemetery, between Sumner and Webb on the east side of Cassidy Bayou. However, Mr. Sumner taught his own children and the children of his tenants at home. A two-story frame building was built in 1904 and was replaced by a brick building in 1917 on Jennings Street, which served as a grammar and high school until the high schools in the West Tallahatchie district were consolidated into West Tallahatchie High School in the late 1940s. When a new elementary school was built, the original Sumner School became the North Delta Alternative School.
The first two churches were the Presbyterian and the First Baptist Church. As early as 1873 there was a Presbyterian Church, known as “Maria Church,” located on the lot where the Presbyterian manse now stands. The present Presbyterian Church, finished in 1920, is located on the north side of town on North Walnut Street facing the bayou to the east. It is built of brick and was copied from a church in Paris.
The first Baptist Church to be built here was on the lot which is now the south part of the Mitchener house lawn. When this church was replaced in 1917 by a brick and stone building on the east side of Cassidy Bayou, the pews were slid across the bayou on the ice from the old church.
In September 1908, Mr. A.L. Whitten began publishing the first newspaper, The Herald Progress. The 1908 and 1909 files of this paper are still in existence. Re-named The Sumner Sentinel, it was bought by Bob and C.B. Brown in 1916 and operated by Bob and his sisters, Bert and Pearle, until 1950, when it was sold to W.M. Simpson.
On February 9, 1909, the entire business section and part of the residential section burned. Brick buildings were erected to replace the old frame structures.
The first iron bridge was built in 1910, replaced with a concrete bridge in 1950.
At an early date, Sumner had its own water and sewage system and electric power plant. The power plant burned in 1926 and the Mississippi Power and Light Company has furnished electricity since that time. Sumner also had telephones and some paved streets and as early as 1909; several residents owned automobiles.
A monument erected to the memory of the Southern Soldiers in 1913 stands on the northeast corner of Court Square. Mr. Sumner, a veteran of the Civil, had the muscle in his right arm completely shot off by a cannonball. He was returning with a group of enlisted men to the war and was to have been made a Captain in the Confederate Army when peace was declared.
Miss Nellie Jennings built the Delta Inn, a brick hotel, in 1917. A landmark for years, it has unfortunately not survived.
Ubiquitous to the region, Native American burial mounds were not honored as such but provided the topographical relief of small hills in a flat land and an occasional source of historical finds. In 1935, some historic Native American relics were unearthed by Paul Tate in the Indian mound on Highway 49-E. They consisted of a human skeleton, interesting bits of pottery, and Indian arrows.
Unlike many Delta towns today, Sumner has for the most part maintained its charm. The population has decreased from 600 in 1950 to 407 in the 2000 census, and former stores no longer exist, but the center of town is held together by the courthouse and the square around it. In 1990, the Small Business Project of Mississippi State University designated Sumner as a town of historic significance and there are current plans to restore its vitality. The courthouse is being restored and a museum in honor of Emmett Till is to be established. To support the museum, restaurants, a grocery store, apartments, and weekend events are envisioned. As a part of this revitalization, the Cassidy Bayou Art and Cultural Center, opening in October, will foster cultural events and outreach to the surrounding schools and communities. Perhaps there is even the possibility that the Delta Inn will be re-built, evoking a time when Sumner was a robust center of commercial and social activity.
With appreciation to Mayor of Sumner Smith Murphy for sharing his "History of Sumner," which earned him a Boy Scout badge some years ago.