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George Hughes, the riot of 1930: Quest for Texas historical marker takes shape

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Grayson County Courthouse 1887

A Grayson County historian is working to memorialize one of Grayson County's darkest days, nearly a century later. Efforts are underway to have the Sherman Riot of 1930, in which a Black man was lynched and Black-owned businesses were destroyed, recognized with the Texas Historical Commission.

Melissa Thiel, a masters graduate from Texas Women's University, is the woman behind a proposal to have a state historic marker erected at the Grayson County Courthouse to recognize the killing of George Hughes and the destruction of the former Grayson County Courthouse and nearby businesses by a mob in 1930.

The attention to Hughes' death comes after a turbulent year marked by marches and movements advocating for civil rights and justice reform following the killing of black men and women by police. This reached its peak in May 2020 with the death of George Floyd, who died by asphyxia while in police custody in Minneapolis.

It was during that summer that Thiel began her research.

The Sherman Riot of 1930

Hughes, a farmhand, went to his employer's residence in early May 1930 seeking payment for work only to be told by his employer's wife that he was not home. Hughes is alleged to have returned later and sexually assaulted his employer's wife. 

Later, Hughes was also alleged to have fired upon officers as he was taken into custody.

In the days leading up to his trial on May 9, attempts were made by mobs to enter into the Grayson County Courthouse to get to Hughes, who was being held outside Grayson County. Officials even led tours of the building to prove that Hughes was not held there.

Efforts are being made to recognize George Hughes, right, who was killed and lynched in the Sherman riot of 1930.

The situation escalated on May 9 as rioters breeched the courthouse and made their way toward the courtroom. Trial proceedings, which had just begun, were halted and ultimately were never resumed. As a precaution,  Hughes was placed inside a fireproof vault within the courthouse.

The courthouse was then set ablaze by rioters. Hughes was still inside.

"George Hughes was still in the vault where he suffocated and died," Thiel said.

The rioters then used dynamite to open the vault and retrieve Hughes' corpse, which was dragged behind an automobile toward the Black business district (present day intersection of Walnut and Mulberry streets) and hanged from a tree. A fire was started under the corpse using furnishings from a nearby store.

Throughout the course of the riot, many Black-owned businesses were burned and destroyed. At the time of the fire, many insurance policies had clauses stating that damage from a riot would not be covered. As such, the businesses were unable to recover, Thiel said. 

Following fires and riot, then Texas Governor Dan Moody called in the Texas National Guard to restore order and martial law was declared for two weeks. Ultimately, only three people were indicted from the riots, and only one went to trial.

The events of May 1930 have received some national recognition, but little locally, Thiel said.

"It is almost like a secret that nobody wants out that is already out," she said.

The slow road to approval

In order to receive  a historic marker at the courthouse, organizers must go through three steps.

First, the Grayson County Historic Commission must approve the marker and research. The Grayson County Commissioners Court must then give approval due to the site location. Finally, the request is sent to the state for final approval.

Thiel submitted her documents to Brian Hander, who at the time served as marker chairman with the GCHC. Thiel said she thought the request had been approved by Hander late last year, but she was then told that the request would have to be voted on during a public meeting.

Hander, who served as marker chairman for several years, said he had previously signed off on multiple requests for markers that met all criteria prior to 2020, but the rules were changed late last year. Hander confirmed that he did initially give his approval prior to learning about this new rule.

Hander has since stepped down from his position within GCHC.

GCHC Chairwoman Teddie Ann Salmon said she plans to have the request on an upcoming agenda, but a date for the next commission meeting has not been set. She said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made meeting difficult, and other factors have also delayed the process.

Salmon is still waiting for information on the location for the marker, but has not heard back yet. The request could also be tabled at the meeting to give more time for a second request coming out of Sherman to recognize the site of the black business district to formalize.

"I believe that this is something that could be a major healing factor from this," Salmon said. "But I think we would be remiss, knowing that there is another submission, not listening to what the other has to say."

Salmon said the two projects could be combined into one with a single marker commemorating both aspects of the event.

"I really think it should be just one marker," Salmon said. "It is like a domino effect. It's the beginning and the end. Because of one act,  it all happened. It just goes."

Even if the marker is approved locally, it could be some time before it is actually placed by the state. The process, which has been historically slow, is being slowed further by the ongoing pandemic.

"Even after being approved, sometimes it is a couple years before we get the marker, especially so with the pandemic," Salmon said.

The path toward healing

Even without the pandemic and possible other delays, Thiel said recognition of what happened to Hughes and the Black businesses of Sherman has been a long time coming and something that should have happened years ago.

Through recognizing the event and the injustice of what happened to Hughes, Thiel said she hopes that healing can finally happen, even if a century later.

"I feel like we have to recognize the past in order to move forward in the future. We have to know what happened here," she said. "The Black community lost everything here in 1930 and there is no recognition of that.

"I think there is still a lot of hurt— I think hurt is the right word. A lot of things happened to them and there isn't a lot of acknowledgement."

The monument of a Confederate soldier sits on the grounds of the Grayson County Courthouse in 2013.