Paris, Tennessee (USA) is a town of about 10,000 people in West Tennessee in the United States of America. Paris is the county seat of Henry County, and the county (including Paris) had 32,363 residents in 2010). The town is located approximately in the middle of the county. Like many towns in the southern U. S., the heart of downtown Paris is a court house. The current Paris court house was completed in 1896. Besides the county seat (Paris), Henry County also includes small, incorporated towns such as Cottage Grove, Henry, and Puryear and several notable named areas such as Buchanan.
Henry County is in the upper right corner of West Tennessee. Its northern border is the Tennessee-Kentucky state line, and the eastern border of the county is a combination of the former Big Sandy river route and the Tennessee River. It is bordered by the following counties:
- Graves County, Kentucky (northwest)
- Calloway County, Kentucky (north)
- Stewart County (northeast, across the Tennessee River)
- Benton County (southeast)
- Carroll County (south)
- Weakley County (west)
Streams and rivers on the western side of Henry County drain generally westward into the North and South Forks of the Obion River; this is the side of the county that had most of the cotton and tobacco farms in the past, due to the more rugged terrain on the eastern side (towards the Tennessee River).
Streams on the eastern side of the county drain eastward, either directly into the Tennessee River, or first into the Big Sandy River, a tributary of the Tennessee.
The Big Sandy River original formed the southeast border of Henry County. Sixty-seven miles long, the river merges into the Tennessee River (now expanded as Kentucky Lake) at the border of Henry and Benton counties. In the 1930's, TVA rerouted the Big Sandy river from its meandering delta-river flow into a straight-cut ditch, but the southeast border of Henry County retains the winding shape of the original Big Sandy river.
The 19th-century economy of the area was farming, with cotton and tobacco dominant on larger farms. The 20th-century economy was marked by a surge of factories and a decrease in the importance of farming. Lumber became an important source of economic activity, and the percentage of forested areas was substantially reduced both by lumbering and suburban home building. In the late 20th century, many industry jobs were off-shored and the economy was severely disrupted. As of 2021, the county and town are struggling economically. The poverty rate of around 20% is more than twice the national average. Generally, the northern half of the county is more affluent than the southern half.
Eiffel Tower Park
In 1993, both Paris, TN and Paris, TX decided to build Eiffel Towers, each sixty feet high. But when the towers were deployed, the people of Paris, Tennessee, had sneaked an extra ten feet onto their tower, making it the tallest Eiffel tower in the USA. The people of Paris, TX, feeling perhaps uncharacteristically belittled, found it necessary to escalate the towers arms race by adding a highly provocative red cowboy hat to their tower. The addition of the red hat turned out to be controversial, as some Texan people described it as the stupidest decision ever made, even for the state of Texas. Of course, none of the replica towers in the United States come close to the 1083' of the original Eiffel tower in Paris, France. Today, the Paris, TN Eiffel tower is surrounded by a beloved and much-used public park.
World's Biggest Fish Fry
Beginning in 1954, the town has continuously celebrated a festival, the World's Biggest Fish Fry, during the last week in April. A parade takes place downtown on Friday of that week. There are tents serving food, including catfish with fried hushpuppies. On Friday, there is also a parade consisting of floats by various groups and organizations, school marching bands, and horses and mules. There is nearly always a carnival, dances, a car show, concerts, arts & crafts, a rodeo and other similar activities throughout the week.
History of the town and county
Settlement by Europeans (1800-1840)
Henry County was created on November 7, 1821 from Chickasaw Indian lands as a result of the Jackson Purchase, a dubious so-called treaty or land purchase entered into in 1818 between Andrew Jackson (on behalf of the U. S. government) and a few Chickasaw leaders. The county was named in honor of Revolutionary-era Virginia legislator Patrick Henry. The county originally included Weakly county and all counties due west over to the Mississippi river, but was soon broken off into the current district.
The town of Paris was founded and incorporated in 1823.
Before the Civil War (1820-1860)
The expulsion of the Chickasaw
This occurred as part of the U. S. Government-supported forced migration of local tribes to, mainly, Oklahoma Territory. The majority of the Chickasaw in West Tennessee relocated to an area in what became Oklahoma in the late 1830's, although relocations continued at a reduced pace for several decades thereafter. There was a Chickasaw reservation between the town of Paris and the Tennessee River, near a place formerly known as Sulphur Wells (a place submerged under Kentucky Lake since the 1940's). There is a road from Paris to this area named Chickasaw Road. In pre-European-settler times, there was an important regional salt lick at Sulphur Wells which was visited not just by the Chickasaw but by neighboring tribes including some from quite far away. The salt lick was also submerged under the TVA lake.
In the early 1800's when Paris was first founded, wealthier people sent their boys to private academy. Some girls also got "academy" (but modified, excluding classics and including more home-making/arts). Anyone else got so-called "common schools", if at all. Common schools arose which taught basic reading writing arithmetic to no more than 8th grade.
Even some slaves were given a basic education (taught to read, maybe). Free negroes, on the other hand (and there were a few in Henry County), were not allowed to hold jobs, associate with slaves (or anyone besides other free negroes), and were not allowed to attend school at all.
Cotton, tobacco and slavery
The following rates were paid for slaves in Henry County during a sale in February 1839::
- man: $900 to $1000
- woman: $700 to $900
- child: $600 to $800
In terms of 2021 monetary worth, the cost per slave would be:
- man: $25,209 to $28,010
- woman: $19,607 to $25,209
- child: $16,806 to $22,408
It is important to realize that slave-owners had invested substantial funds in their source of labor and believed that abolition of slavery would ruin the economy and their way of life. Their participation in the civil war for the South was in every way an attempt to protect against having their right to own slaves infringed. The struggles for and against slavery throughout the thirty years leading up to the civil war were apparent in almost all parts of the Southern states, as well as the newly added territories, where the questions were twofold: Would slavery be allowed in this new territory, and would the new territories have to return escaped Southern slaves to their masters?
In the 1850s, the decade leading up to the civil war, most of the economy of Henry County came from moderate-sized farms between 20 and 500 acres; their owners and families were the main demographic of the county at that time.. Three other groups existed in small pockets only: large plantation owners, poor whites, and free negroes. Per the county census figures, a third of all heads of these farm families owned slaves in 1850. Tobacco and cotton were important crops, and the labor for those crops was done almost exclusively by slaves, who constituted a quarter of the overall population, but lived on only a third of the farms. The county's slaveholders had great influence with politics of the day. Two-thirds of Henry County voters elected to secede from the union, and any Union sentiment in the remaining third of the population was brutally suppressed, not only in Henry County but in most of West and Middle Tennessee. During this period, Isham G. Harris and John D. C. Atkins, both strongly pro-southern in sentiment, were very popular and acted as the main political voices in Henry County.
In 1860, Henry County’s two largest landowners were William A. Tharpe (4938 acres) and J. J. Cooke (2590 acres). They were likewise holders of the most slaves, 94 and 77 respectively
During the Civil War (1860s)
Before the war began, two different elections were held in all counties of the state to determine whether Tennessee would secede from the union or not. While Henry County did come down on the side of secession, there was still a substantial portion of the population opposed to secession. Throughout the war, there was brutal suppression of voices in favor of remaining in the Union. An account of the battle of Paris (by J. Van Dyke) includes details on some families on each side of the divide, and how they were treated during the war. Schools were closed throughout the war, and for most of the time, Paris was technically under union control, while local majority sentiment was against the Union side. Troops from both sides passed through the town more than once.
The public school at that time (renamed around 1910 for Robert E. Lee) was the site of troop recruitment for the Confederacy.
Some neighboring counties such as Carroll were much more strongly pro-Union than Henry County.
After the Civil War (1870 - 1930)
Twentieth century factories: Boom and bust
In the twentieth century, Paris and Henry County became a source of cheap labor for factories of various companies. This caused a migration of rural farmers from the countryside into the town of Paris in order to work in the factories. It was typical, at first, that only white men were employed in these factories. During WW II, a shortage of men due to the military draft gave white women their first opportunities at factory jobs. Although after the war, the women initially lost some of those jobs due to the return of men from the war, by the 1960's and 1970's, social changes led to many more factory jobs opening up for women, although they were typically relegated to the office or to the lower paying, more tedious jobs.
During the late 1950s, a major change started rattling the manufacturing industry in the U.S. Many manufacturers who had once made their products on American soil began moving their production overseas. By moving overseas, companies could make and ship parts to the U.S. more cheaply than they could manufacture them in the U.S. By the 1980's, almost all factories had been moved out of the U.S.
This section discusses some industries that were active in Henry County during the twentieth century. Most, if not all, are now defunct. The loss of factory jobs was de astating to the area's economy, as many jobs were never replaced by other industries and former employees were left without health insurance.
Mitchum Company (1913-1972)
In 1913, the Mitchum Warren family established the Paris Toilet Company in Paris to market a bleaching cream for freckles. The company name was changed in 1927 to the Golden Peacock Company and later became the Mitchum Company. The company’s best known product line, Mitchum antiperspirants, was launched in 1959. It is still on the market today, although the brand has been owned by the Revlon company since 1970. By 1972, the company had been bought by Revlon and had been moved from Blythe Street in downtown Paris to Hwy. 54 (the building which now houses the Euro company). When the plant closed in 1972, 240 people lost their jobs.
The Clippard Plant (1955-1973)
Clippard Instruments, Inc. opened a factory in Paris, Tenn. in 1955 after its previous factory in Sturgis, KY, developed labor problems. Clippard leased a 30,000 square foot facility in Paris, TN, and converted it into a semi-automated assembly plant to make radio and television components such as the electronic coils. The Clippard plant employed about 100 employees and operated in Paris until 1973.
One reason that the plant may have closed is that the demand for coils was decreasing as radios and TVs began to be built using transistors, which meant that the need for vacuum tubes, and therefore coils, decreased substantially. Another likely reason was the creation of trade agreements with other countries. The U.S. tariff on imported coils had been reduced from 15% to 7.5% during the Kennedy administration in the 1960's. This reduction in tariff was implemented over five years, from 1968 to 1972. Clippard closed the Paris, TN. plant in November 1973, stating that it could not operate that plant profitably in competition with lower cost imports. A third possible reason for loss of the plant was the availability of cheaper labor elsewhere. After closing the Paris plant, Clippard transferred its coil-manufacturing materials and equipment to a factory in Matamoros, Mexico, that was opened in 1972. An April 1974 report funded by the U.S. Government found that, as a result of concessions granted under trade agreements such as Section 301(c)(2) of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, more electronic coils were being imported in the U.S., which caused American workers employed by Clippard Instruments, Inc. to lose employment.
The Shirt Factory
The garment factory was operated by Salant and Salant on Washington Street in Paris, TN. It opened in the 1930s and operated until at least the 1960's. It employed mainly women to do the sewing and men as supervisors and managers. In the late 1950's and early 1960's, it also began employing some people of color. The production floor was a huge open space with ceiling fans (there was no air conditioning in those days), with many long rows of sewing machines. Work conditions were reputed to be hard; workers had to "make production" every day, which meant they had to produce an amount specified by management, or else they would be fired. Pay was low, conditions harsh, and yet, these jobs were highly sought after within the community because it was one of the first places that women could obtain work outside the home.
The carburetor plant (1949-1987)
In 1949, Paris Manufacturing Co. built a factory on Highway 69, northwest of Paris, and leased it to Holley Carburetors, who bought the building outright in 1958. By 1974, Holley was making carburetors for Ford and some under its own name at the Paris, Tennessee factory. In 1968, Colt Industries Inc. acquired Holley from the Holley family.
The carburetor plant was unionized (UAW), and in 1986, the union voted to forego making fuel injectors. This vote was unfortunate because the use of carburetors in American automobiles was declining rapidly at that time in favor of fuel injectors. That vote may have been a factor in the entire plant being shut down the following year. In 1987, the plant closed and about 1000 jobs were lost. That is likely fewer than the plant employed during its peak years around 1980. Because the lost jobs were relatively high paying, and because they were from a unionized company, the impact of unemployment on local families was severe and many were unable to find equivalent employment afterwards.
Another source claimed the plant had shut in 1994.
The former Holley Carburetor building stood unused for decades, until in 2017, the Henry Farmers Co-op created a 456-square-foot space in the southwest corner of the old factory. At the same time, the Henry Farmers Co-op closed its retail operation on West Wood Street, so the usage in the Holley building is as a wholesale and bulk materials business, with 32 parking spaces allotted. The Co-op had had a downtown presence since at least the 1950's.
Midland Ross (1954-?)
This lamp factory located near the fairgrounds operated during the 1970's and 1980's. Ceramic lamp bases were molded, fired, painted, decorated, and assembled into lamps, which were packed and then sent to commercial lamp outlets. The factory was not air conditioned. It employed both men and women, perhaps a hundred people.
Plumley, later Dana
Plumley Rubber Co. once employed about 300 employees at the Paris plant. It was still open in 1994. A Tennessean article on March 10, 1995 (p 90 of 99) says that the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International (OCAW) had filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. The union was trying to unionize Plumley Division of Data Corp. By 1999, it had been bought and taken over by Dana's Engine Systems Group. Dana Incorporated has 200 employees at this location.
Racial desegregation since 1960
Prior to the 1960's, black people were not welcome in the main part of town but were expected to remain in "their" part of town, or in the countryside where they worked on farms. The one exception was Mule Day, which was held officially on the first Monday in April beginning in 1938. It was a day for mule trading, swapping tales, trading knives, and winning cash or merchandise donated by local merchants and was attended mainly by men. Mule Day was the only day upon which black men were actually welcomed in the town. Mule Day was discontinued after 1953, having been replaced by the World's Biggest Fish Fry.
Also up until around 1960, people of color were not allowed to eat in restaurants with white people. As this began to change, the black people first braving to enter the areas of stores and restaurants formerly reserved for whites faced intermittent opposition and some abuse, but the integration did continue steadily.
Even into the 1970's, people of color were not hired for most jobs. Almost the only employment available for most black men (and most women or children too) was picking cotton, which was backbreaking work in high heat and paid terrible wages. Black women were sometimes hired as cooks, housekeepers or nannies in white households and white-owned restaurants, but they had to remain out of sight and out of mind or they would be fired.
Even throughout the 1970's, black men were seldom (if at all) hired for factory jobs. Mexican or immigrant workers were sometimes hired in factories but were hounded out by the white workforce.
Within the factories, white women began to be hired by the 1960's but often found themselves relegated to the lower-paying jobs.
A segregated movie theater
During the 1960's and beyond, a gradual process of desegregation began taking place in other aspects of the town and county, not just in schools. For example, prior to this time, people of color going to see a film at the old Capitol Theater in Paris were required to enter by a side door and sit in a gallery separate from white people, and incidentally farther from the screen. The theater was opened in the 1920's as the Dixie Theater (and had an organ for accompaniment of silent films), and in the 1930's or 1940's was renamed as the Capitol theater. The Capitol closed around 1970, about the time segregation really began to end in practice. After it closed, the building was taken over by the next-door Grace Episcopal Church and is now unrecognizable as a former movie theater.
The landmark 1954 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court "Brown vs. Board of Education" made it illegal to segregate schools on grounds of race. In Paris, as across the nation, it took nearly twenty years for the full effects of that decision to make its way into practice. Prior to 1962, all schools in Paris and Henry County were racially segregated. About 15% of the population was black, and that population did have its own schools (which is more than can be said for many other counties in Tennessee). Schools for blacks were drastically underfunded as compared with the equivalent schools for whites. Black high school students in Paris attended Central High School, a segregated school. The student population of all schools in the county, in the 1950's and earlier, were segregated by race.
In the fall of 1962, Paris schools began a gradual process of introducing a limited number of students of color into the white schools, and by 1969, the gradual process of combining schools was completed when Henry County High School in Paris opened up. Students from the entire county were bused to this and other consolidated schools near the center of the county without regard for race. The small rural schools in outlying communities closed and their students were brought to consolidated schools in Paris. The gradual process of school integration proceeded peacefully on the whole, and busing of children was not a huge issue because it was not primarily motivated by race but by the need to provide all students of any race with access to the "best" schools which were consolidated in the middle of the county, in the town of Paris.
The first black students sent to white schools faced a lot of issues. There were about two per each class of maybe thirty students. Each year, a few more blacks entered, so eventually there was perhaps more support for the students who pioneered entering majority-white schools.
Civil war monument
Physical signs of the former times when slavery was practiced still exist in Henry County. On the front lawn of the court house is a statue of a confederate soldier, one of many monuments around the U.S. earmarked by the InvisibleHate.org website in 2020 as appropriate for removal (possibly to a less prominent location such as a private cemetery containing the remains of confederate soldiers). The monument was unveiled on October 13, 1900 and is now protected by the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, making it likely very difficult to remove despite its possibly being an affront to any person of color entering the courthouse. The following inscryption is on the base of the statue:
No country had truer sons
No cause nobler champions
No people bolder defenders
Signs of change
The consolidation of smaller schools into larger schools in the 1960's and 1970's also had the effect of removing some Civil War hero names from schools. For example, white grade school students in Paris, prior to 1969, attended schools such as Atkins Porter School and Lee School, both named for civil-war era politicians or generals. In August of 2020, the former Lee grade school, which had become the Lee Academy for the Arts (402 Lee St.), named for Confederate general Robert E. Lee, was renamed as Paris Academy for the Arts, and its board of directors (formerly called the Robert E. Lee School Association) renamed itself as the Paris Academy Association. The site and building had born the name of confederate general Robert E. Lee since 1910. The name change is significant, because this historic building was the site of troop recruitment for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Of course, the academy is still located on a street still bearing the name of the civil war general.
- Henry County, Tennessee Population 2021, World Population Review, 2021-01-27. Retrieved on 2021-01-27.
- Per the National Geographic Tennessee River Valley website (last access on 11/30/2020), the Richardsonian Romanesque court house in Paris is the oldest working judicial building in West Tennessee.
- Henry Co., TN, Population Data Profile, last access 2/15/2021
- Chickasaw Removal from chickasaw.net, last access 12/4/2022
- WTHS Van Dyke p73
- WTHS, Van Dyke p 72
- WTHS, Van Dyke pp69-71
- WTHS Van Dyke, p 73 and p 78
- WTHS Van Dyke, p 74
- Chase Mooney, “Slavery in Tennessee”, 1957, Indiana University Press, Bloomington; 199pp as cited by Van Dyke p 25, footnote # 69
- Post made on 5/9/2022 by MyParisMagazine.com on Facebook
- Clippard History - 1950's, last access 4/13/2021
- Publication 664, April 1974 of the U. S. Tariff Commission, last access 4/12/2021
- Publication 664, April 1974 of the U. S. Tariff Commission, last access 4/12/2021
- Detroit Firm to Buy Paris Building (1958) from The Nashville Banner 22 Dec 1958, Mon, Page 12 via Newspapers.com, last access 4-13-2021
- Jobless Poll via United We Work from The Jackson Sun 21 Feb 1988, pp 1-2 via Newspapers.com, last access 7/16/2021
- This is all based on my memory. My mother and brother both worked at Markel Lighting for several years; my neighbor worked there; and I worked there for one summer during my college years in the 1970s. Pat Palmer
- Leland Palmer (my father) was born in 1918 and resided in Paris, TN from 1954 until his death in 1992. He was raised in nearby Big Sandy, Tennessee, and thus was familiar with Paris his entire life. He mentioned the fact of black men not being welcomed except on Mule Day to his daughter, and she is reporting it here. Pat Palmer
- Much of the information in this section is based on my personal memory of having grown up in Paris, TN, and attended the schools from 1958 until 1971. I was in a poor, white family on the outskirts of town. Pat Palmer
- Central High School was on Rison St and was used for black students from 1931 until 1958(?). The delapidated building was demolished in 2014. -Pat Palmer
- I attended the Atkins Porter grade school, and I remember the day when the first two black students were brought into my fourth-grade classroom and introduced. One of them was, I recall, Gregory Perry. Gregory was in my class each year until we both graduated from high school in 1971. He worked at the Kroger store alongside me, hired by a progressive manager of that store, and he became an attorney, moved to Memphis, and worked for Kroger Corporate until his retirement around, I think, 2018. It is impossible to say enough about the courage required of these young African American kids during the early days of school integration. -Pat Palmer
- Waymarking: Henry Co. Confederate Monument, Paris, TN, last access 1/17/2021
- Roger Raymond Van Dyke. Antebellum Henry County, West Tennessee Historical Society, Papers 1947-2015, Vol 33, 49pp. Retrieved on 2022-09-11.
- The PI (Paris Post-Intelligencer) Aug 28, 2020 article PARIS, TN: Former Lee school building gets name change, last access 2/15/2021