Efforts for George Hughes historic marker hit roadblock with Historical Commission, county

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Members of the Grayson County Historical Commission discuss a proposed marker that would discuss the 1930 riots the led to the lynching of a black man and the destruction of the Grayson County Courthouse and Sherman's black business district.

Efforts to memorialize the lynching of George Hughes and the destruction of the Grayson County Courthouse and Sherman's black business district in 1930 took a confusing turn Saturday as the Grayson County Historical Commission denied a motion related to the efforts.

The discussion before the commission was the latest step in a series of approvals needed to get a state historic marker erected on the courthouse square. However, the confusing process led some to refer to the situation as a catch-22.

" I came here today to get a Texas historical marker place at the courthouse to discuss the lynching of George Hughes in the Sherman Riot of 1930," proposal writer  Melissa Thiel said Saturday at the commission meeting. "Historically, Grayson County has not been on board with putting a Texas historical marker up, and hopefully today will change that."

Thiel started her efforts to get the marker in mid-2020 as protests jumpstarted conversations around the nation regarding the death of George Floyd who died while in police custody in Minnesota. The protest pushed to highlight examples of injustices in the policing system that have led to the deaths of Black men and women.

"A lot of people have said why do we want this marker; why are you trying to get this marker?" Thiel said. "Growing up, I talked about the events of 1930. The focus that I heard from family was mainly about the courthouse. The lynching of George Hughes and the burning of the black business district wasn't really discussed a lot. It really piqued my interest."

https://www.heralddemocrat.com/story/news/2021/02/05/george-hughes-riot-1930-quest-texas-historical-marker-takes-shape/4387368001/

In order to get the marker approved, Thiel will need the permission of Grayson County due to the current courthouse being the location where she would like the marker placed. However, Thiel said she was told by county leaders that the request would need approval by the county historic commission before county approval could be given.

During Saturday's meet, members of the historic commission said they were not there to approval or disapprove of the request and instead were there to decide if the request meets the criteria listed for a marker.

One of these requirements is approval by the property owner which in this case would be the county.

Commission Chair Teddie Ann Salmon said the request would feature a note that Thiel's request doesn't have that permission. She said the request would then go forward to county commissioners in order to get said permission.

Calls to county commissioners Bart Lawrence, David Whitlock, and Jeff Whitmire for comment and clarification on the process were not immediately returned by Monday afternoon. Commissioner Phyllis James declined to comment, citing a need for further information. County Judge Bill Magers commented that, "Grayson County will follow state regulations," but did not give further public comment about the process.

Going into the meeting, Salmon opened by reading a copy of the organization's bylaws in order to give the public an understanding of the organization and the purpose of the meeting.

"There has been a lot of misunderstanding as to what we are doing," Salmon said.  "There is a scoring system, but it is not up to us for the scoring system."

The meeting was opened to the public for comment, with all of the more than a dozen speakers voicing their approval of the request and recognition for one the darkest days in Sherman's history. Throughout the meeting, Salmon spoke over and answered for Thiel when she was addressed, noting that the purpose of the discussion was for comment.

"I think even though she did that, the public saw what was going on; I was being hushed," Thiel said.

https://www.heralddemocrat.com/story/news/2021/02/05/city-seeks-laud-former-black-business-district/4406306001/

Among the speakers were several professors from Austin College, who spoke in favor, citing the historic importance of the events surrounding Hughes' death and the days that followed.

"This is clearly an accurately documented event; it clearly has significance," said AC professor Felix Harcourt. "There are already markers in Grayson County that discuss the burning of the courthouse... so there already been an acknowledgement by the commission and by the county that this is a historically  event deserving of a marker."

The fact that the events have not been recognized with a marker in the past 91 years are an example of historical whitewashing and attempts to hide the past, AC Professor Lisa Brown said.

"I think it continues to be buried," she said. "I think it continues to be an unfortunate re-traumatization, frankly, instead of moving forward to a reckoning and coming together."

Chele Wells said she wanted the events to be preserved for the sake of future generations and to show where the community once was in an effort to never repeat these incidents.

"We need to know so that we can do better," she said.

Sherman Assistant City Manager Terrence Steele referred to the situation as a catch-22 with regard to who needed to grant approval for the request.  Citing Sherman, Steele said the final say should go to citizens and the city should only determine a location that doesn't interfere with other uses.

"The taxpayers are the property owners of the county courthouse," he said.

The meeting proceedings took another turn when the request was put forward for a motion by Salmon. After a second a motion, commission member John Akers motioned that the commission, "approve the accuracy of the information submitted and historical significance of the marker and that the applicant seek approval to place the marker."

This resulted in some pushback from other members of the commission who said that the commission was not voting on an opinion, but instead if it met criteria. This led to back and forth about what exactly the local commission's role in the process was.

Akers was the sole vote in favor when the motion was put to a vote. However, other members expressed confusion about the proceedings and what was being voted on. Salmon said the minutes from the meeting would be forwarded to the commission to show that the request was discussed in the public.

Meanwhile, Thiel said she left Saturday's meeting more confused than she had entered it. 

"I am sort of in this limbo for what is the next step," she said.

Despite the confusion during the meeting, Thiel said she would go next to the county commissioners. From there, she said she was still uncertain.

"It is almost like they are passing the buck to the commissioners court while the commissioners court onto the Grayson County Historical Commission. So we are in kind of this catch-22 of where do we need to get approval from to get this thing running."

George Hughes was a black farmhand who was accused of sexually assaulting his employer's wife in May 1930. During the trial, the county courthouse was attacked by rioters seeking Hughes. The courthouse was ultimately set on fire and burned to the ground as Hughes was kept in a fireproof vault inside the building for safety. 

Following the blaze, Hughes' body was extracted from the vault and dragged through downtown Sherman before it was hung from a tree with a fire lit beneath it. Over the course of the event, a nearby black business district was burned down to the ground  by rioters.

The events led the governor to declare martial law in Sherman, and the national guard stayed in the city for two weeks in an effort to reestablish peace.