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Today is August 13, 2022

Looking back: The Great Depression in Mississippi

By Steven Ward

Looking back: The Great Depression in Mississippi

Electric power in rural Mississippi is the direct result of federal and state politicians working to stop suffering and hunger during the Great Depression.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order on May 11, 1935, that created The Rural Electrification Administration as part of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act.

The Great Depression tested the resolve of Mississippi’s population and people who lived all over the U.S. The nation’s reaction and fortitude to persevere during the mass disaster was the catalyst for what is known today as, “The Greatest Generation.”

How the people of Mississippi and the nation responded to the Great Depression was something that fascinated Meridian author Richelle Putnam and led to her new book, “Images of America: Mississippi in the Great Depression” (Arcadia), a more than 200-page history with 70 photos from that era.

“In America, it brought forth the Greatest Generation to which we often refer when reminiscing perseverance, strength, and triumph over adversity. My initial interest built from reading about the Greatest Generation and flourished while writing my biography, “The Inspiring Life of Eudora Welty” and my regional non-fiction book, “Lauderdale County, Mississippi: A Brief History,” both of which featured the Great Depression era,” Putnam said recently.

“So many New Deal projects still exist in and around my Meridian community, such as the Meridian Federal Building, the Meridian High School Stadium, and Ross Collins Vocational School (Ross Collins Career and Technical Center).

“Entering the Depression, Mississippi had already suffered greatly from the 1927 flood. Extreme soil erosion resulted from soil depletion due to massive cotton cultivation and the cutting of the state’s once-grand forests for financial gain. The 1930 Mississippi Valley drought added to an already tragic situation. Through research, I realized the many and much-needed contributions of Roosevelt’s New Deal Programs that provided jobs and targeted solutions to the consequences of financial greed and the neglect of natural resource conservation,” Putnam said.

America’s rural population was at its most disadvantaged during the Great Depression. Only 10% of rural Americans had electricity, and the number was 1% in Mississippi.

“Without electricity, perishable food spoiled, and sanitation suffered. Urban areas enjoyed electric lights, washing machines, and refrigerators, but rural Mississippians struggled through grueling days with only sunlight and kerosene in their primitive environment. They lit their lanterns before sunrise, and when darkness fell to begin and finish their labor,” Putnam said.

Although the need for rural electrification was evident, private investors and companies didn’t want the task and expense of running lines into rural Mississippi without reaping a profit. And rural residents didn’t make enough money to do it themselves, even with pooling their money.

The Roosevelt administration created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federal electric company and the Rural Electrification Administration, which offered loans to rural farmers and community leaders to provide power in rural areas.

Today, the TVA and, in south Mississippi, Cooperative Energy generate and deliver power to the state’s 25 electric cooperatives. Cooperative Energy, formally known as the South Mississippi Electric Power Association, formed in 1941.

Two key Mississippi movers and shakers behind bringing power to rural Mississippi were U.S. Sen. Pat Harrison from the Gulf Coast and U.S. Rep. John Rankin of Tupelo.

“Sen. Harrison and Rep. Rankin advocated heartily for electric power distribution in Mississippi. They would also welcome President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor to Mississippi to tour New Deal projects, like the new homesteads and the TVA, which began rural electrification in Mississippi.

In 1936, the state of Mississippi established the Rural Electrification Authority of Mississippi and passed the Electric Power Association Act, a law that created electric cooperatives. That law was updated in 2016.

Mississippi was among the first states in the nation to pass adequate laws for forming electric cooperatives, according to the definitive state electric cooperative history, “Rural Electrification in Mississippi 1934-1970” by Winnie Ellis Phillips.

Alcorn County Electric Power Association in Corinth was the nation’s first rural electric cooperative.

Rural power wasn’t the only cooperative effort from Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Credit unions came about as the result of The Federal Credit Union Act of 1934.

Putnam said each Great Depression photo in the book tells a different story.

“The images are so diverse. Each tells its personal story. However, the historical narrative expands when the combined photos and captions encompass the more extraordinary story of the Great Depression in Mississippi,” Putnam said.

The research, writing, and acquiring the photos took Putnam over a year.

“Thanks to other New Deal Programs, photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration and the Works Progress Administration, which included Mississippi’s Eudora Welty, took around 80,000 photos of life during the Great Depression. The Library of Congress, where these photos are archived, provided most of the images in the book,” Putnam said.

Other Great Depression-era improvements to Mississippi included action by Gov. Mike Connor, who initiated measures to improve the treatment of inmates at Parchman Prison in the Delta. Women also played an active role. The Natchez Garden Club successfully spurred tourism by starting the state’s first pilgrimage in 1932. Mississippians found employment through the Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which stimulated economic development through new and add-on construction in urban and rural areas and the construction of nine state parks.

When asked if there were any lessons learned or to be learned by Mississippi from the Great Depression, Putnam said the power and influence of Roosevelt and the New Deal was immense.

“There was political, social, economic, and cultural cooperation for the common good of all Americans and, of course, Mississippians. President Franklin D. Roosevelt served four terms in office and is still considered one of America’s most influential and beloved presidents. We can argue all day about the pros and cons of his administration’s New Deal. However, the fact remains that the American people, including over 90% of Mississippians, voted him into office more than any other president in American history,” she said.


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