While it feels like the nation and world have found themselves back in the civil and racial unrest of the 1960s, Grayson County recently reached the 90th anniversary of one of the biggest race-related uprisings North Texas has ever seen.
In May of 1930, white mobs stormed the Grayson County Courthouse and eventually burned it to the ground to get access to a black man named George Hughes who had been indicted for assaulting his white employer's wife. They later hanged his body in the black business district. That district, along with many black-owned homes, were destroyed as well in the violence that took state national guards to eventually quell.
Flash forward to 2017. Another white woman caused the area to revisit that history in a thankfully less violent way. Breana Harmon-Talbott, 19, of Denison told authorities in March of that year that she had been kidnapped by three black men and beaten and raped by two of them. She eventually admitted that she had made the whole thing up and was sentenced to eight years deferred adjudication.
At the time of the incident, Denison Police Chief Jay Burch said, “Breana Harmon-Talbott's hoax was also insulting to our community and especially offensive to the African-American community due to her description of the so-called suspects in her hoax.”
Now in 2020, just two weeks after thousands of Grayson County residents marched in the streets of Sherman and Denison in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement and in the memory of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer during an arrest, local leaders say listening to each other is the next step.
Last week, Joshua Shaw, who organized the march in Sherman, said racism isn't as overt in Grayson County as it is in other parts of the country. But, that does not mean it is not taking place, he said.
“It is here, but it is hidden,” he said. “It is secret, and it needs to be exposed. It will have no choice but be eliminated.”
Citing that North Texas is no different than any other portion of the world, former Denison city council member Coach Rayce Guess said this community is just a microcosm of the nation so the problems that are found elsewhere are found here too, but it may not look or sound exactly the same.
“There are still incidents of people that are still in the old mindset of how you treat people of color, not just black people,” he said. People, he added, will make racially motivated comments on social media but they don't say or do those things out in the public eye.
“It is still here. It is definitely still here. It hasn't gone anywhere,” he said.
Peaceful protests and marches on May 31, June 3 and June 7 were just the start, the local civil activism community believes. Thousands gathered in Sherman and Denison for marches. Chanting “Black Lives Matter,” “Say his name. George Floyd.” and “No justice, no peace,” local city leaders and police officers joined in the marches with people of different nationalities, races, socio-economic backgrounds and genders.
“It is more than just walking,” Shaw said. “Don't get me wrong the protest and walking is great for the unity. But after that, you need to go home and do some research and get some knowledge for yourself. You need to know what you need to know to vote. We really want to emphasize voting. And trying to let them know that we care about changes in our community.”
Sherman Assistant City Manager Terrence Steele, who has been on the Sherman City Council and worked for Workforce Solutions Texoma, said those next steps start with conversations.
“I think for the most part, there has to be a willingness to sit and talk with the younger generation and listen instead of just telling them what you want them to hear,” he said. “I think if we can harness this energy that has been created from the tragedy of the Floyd death, and sit and talk with the young people and listen to what their concerns are from their perspective, I think at that point we can groom the next generation.”
That grooming has gone beyond the city level. Local religious leaders have spent years trying to continue conversations. St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Denison's the Very Rev. Don Perschall has been involved an organizer of the National Day of Prayer events in the city as well as community fellowship events that have brought churches of multiple denominations and racial makeups together.
He said he was proud that there were many members of his church in the group that marched in Denison recently.
He said having led churches in the south as well as the north, he finds Grayson County to be an open community racially.
“That's not to say we don't have issues that go back a long way, because do,” he said. “But we are working at them. People are open and they are working on things.”
But working together requires more than just hearing each other out.
“People need to listen,” Perschall continued. “Listen with your heart and with your mind wide open. You listen with the power of God's holy spirit enabling you to see beyond what appears on the surface and see what is.”
While it is up to those in power to listen, it is also up to those who want change to be prepared when they have those conversations, Shaw reiterated.
“We want to make sure that when we get there, everything is presented right, the right way. So that you are actually heard and not just listened (to). People will not take you serious if you go in there empty handed.”
As Grayson County continues to march forward, local activists do not want the Sherman Riots of 1930 to be the only thing the area is known for.
“They said we cannot do it. They said we cannot protest in peace,” Shaw said at the May 31 march in Sherman. “But we have come, we have said what we needed to say and we are going to leave in the same way we came: in peace.”