The town is notable for being the self-proclaimed "Mule capital of the world" and honors this with Mule Day, a large celebration held annually in April. Columbia is also the home of the national headquarters for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
A year after the organization of Maury County in 1807, Columbia was laid out in 1808 and lots were sold. The original town, on the south bank of the Duck River, consisted of only four blocks. The town was incorporated in 1817. For years, it was the county seat of the richest county in agricultural wealth in the state. Today, it is a tourist destination, most of whom are drawn by the numerous historic sites in the area. Attractions include the James K. Polk Ancestral Home, the Columbia Athenaeum, Mule Day, and nearby plantation homes.
Famous natives of Columbia include Dan Uggla of the Atlanta Braves, James K. Polk, Governor, Congressman, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and eleventh President of the United States; A.O.P. Nicholson, state senator, U.S. Senator, and Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court; Sterling Marlin, NASCAR driver; Dr. Marion Dorsett, inventor of the serum to control hog cholera; Fran McKee, first female line officer to hold the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy; Lyman T Johnson, civil rights movement;and Raphael Benjamin West former Nashville mayor and Civil Rights ally, noted architect James Edwin Ruthven Carpenter, Jr. and John Harlan Willis, United States Navy sailor and a recipient of the Medal of Honor —for his actions during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
Columbia is also home to Tennessee's first two-year college, Columbia State Community College, established in 1966. President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson arrived to dedicate the new campus on March 15, 1967.
Columbia Race Riot of 1946
In 1946, a race riot dubbed 'The Columbia Race Riot' occurred in Columbia. A fight between James Stephenson, a black Navy veteran, and a white shopkeeper apparently ignited the event, resulting in various incidents of shooting, fighting, and rioting between whites and blacks in a part of Columbia known as "Mink Slide", a name for the black business district. Several people were eventually charged with rioting and attempted murder. The main attorney to defend Stephenson in the case was Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first black United States Supreme Court justice.