Although Henry Lewis Whitfield served in the state’s highest office, he is perhaps best known for his career in public education and his many contributions to the development of Mississippi’s public school system. While still a student at Mississippi College, Whitfield began his teaching career at age sixteen. Because of his limited financial resources, Whitfield never had the opportunity to attend school two years in succession and it took him ten years to earn his bachelor’s degree.
Whitfield, who was born in Rankin County, Mississippi, on June 20, 1868, served as school principal at Westfield and Steen’s Creek during the early stage of his career. Whitfield aspired to be a lawyer and enrolled in the law department at Millsaps College. However, just before he was about to begin his law practice, he was appointed state superintendent of education by Governor Anselm McLaurin in 1898. He was subsequently elected superintendent in 1899 and re-elected in 1903. As superintendent, Whitfield was a strong advocate of industrial training and agricultural high schools.
In 1907, Whitfield was appointed president of the Industrial Institute and College at Columbus. The institute experienced significant growth under his leadership, and in 1920 its name was changed to Mississippi State College for Women, and is now Mississippi University for Women.
In the 1923 governor's race, the first in which women voted under the terms of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, Whitfield narrowly defeated Theodore Bilbo. Whitfield was very popular among Mississippi’s new voters. During his administration, Governor Whitfield recommended a broad and progressive legislative program which included better mental health care, improvement of the state’s vocational training program, reorganization and upgrading of the entire public school system, the expansion of economic opportunities for Mississippi’s Black citizens, and industrial expansion. Governor Whitfield also favored the enactment of a state inheritance tax.
Governor Whitfield’s industrial policies and his effort to attract more industry to Mississippi was a forerunner to the Balance Agriculture With Industry program that was created in 1936. The Sea Wall Bill, which authorized the construction of a wall to protect the beaches along the Mississippi Sound, was also passed during his administration.
In the winter of 1926 Governor Whitfield became gravely ill and after a brief treatment in Memphis, he returned to Jackson and conducted the affairs of state from his private quarters in the Governor’s Mansion. His condition grew progressively worse, and on March 18, 1927, Governor Whitfield died at the mansion. After a memorial service at the state capitol, Governor Whitfield was interred at Columbus.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Baker, Bill. Catch the Vision: The Life of Henry L. Whitfield of Mississippi (Jackson, 1974).
Kelly, Thomas E. Who’s Who in Mississippi, 147.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1924-1928), 58-60.