The population was 34,681 at the 2010 census and in 2013 the population was 35,558.
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 and Maury County are acknowledged as the "Antebellum Homes Capital of Tennessee", with more pre-civil war homes than any other county in the state. 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 by European Americans, 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 decades during the antebellum years, it was the county seat of the richest county in the state, based on agricultural wealth in plantations and high-quality livestock. Today, the county is a heritage tourist destination, because of its 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 the location of 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
On February 25, 1946, a civil disturbance dubbed "Columbia Race Riot" broke out in the county seat. It was covered by the national press as the first major racial confrontation following World War II. A fight instigated by a white repair apprentice became volatile when James Stephenson fought back and wounded him; Stephenson was a black Navy veteran who had been on the boxing team and refused to accept being hit. Stephenson had accompanied his mother to the repair store. A white mob gathered and Fleming's father convinced the sheriff to charge both Stephensons with attempted murder. Rumors were rife that they would be lynched, as had recently been done to 19-year-old Cordie Cheek. The white mob shot randomly into the black business district, which they called "Mink Slide." Armed black men patrolled their area for defense and exchanged shots, which increased white rage. The sheriff called in state troopers and highway patrol that night, who added to the destruction of the black district and rounded up more than 100 suspects through the next day. No whites were charged. Twenty-five black men were eventually charged with rioting and attempted murder. The main attorney to defend Stephenson and other men in the case was Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP, who achieved acquittal for all but one man from the all-white jury, and had charges against the last reduced. Marshall was later appointed as the first black United States Supreme Court justice, after gaining the overturn of segregation in public schools by the US Supreme Court in his case, Brown v. Board of Education.