Learning from the past: Community commemorates 91st anniversary of George Hughes lynching

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Crowds gathered outside the Grayson County Courthouse Saturday in remembrance of George Hughes, a black farmhand who was lynched in 1930 in an act of mob justice. The event culminated in the destruction of the Grayson County Courthouse.

Area residents came together Saturday night to remember a man who was never given his day in court. Church and community leaders gathered on the steps of the Grayson County Courthouse to commemorate the lynching of George Hughes, a Black farmhand who was killed in 1930, along with the destruction of the Grayson County Courthouse.

The ceremony came on the eve of the 91st anniversary of the day Hughes was killed in a fire and hanged from a tree in an act of mob justice in Sherman, and it featured speakers, gospel singers and a candlelight vigil in Hughes memory.

"We are doing a 91st year commemoration for the lynching of George Hughes here in Sherman in 1930," said historian Melissa Thiel, who helped organize the event. "We wanted to publicly acknowledge what happened here 91 years ago and stand with the community the was affected by what happened."

Thiel is in the process of petitioning for a historical marker, that would memorialize the event, to be placed at the courthouse. However, the project has had slow progress and setbacks, including confusing requirements on who must first sign off on the placement of the marker.

Thiel said previously that her efforts have been in response to the protests in 2020 surrounding the killing of George Floyd and other Black men and women by police across the country. 

In early May 1930, Hughes went to his employers residence seeking payment he was owed for work, but he was told by his employer's wife that he was not home. Hughes is alleged to have sexually assaulted the woman when he later returned seeking payment. 

Crowds gathered outside the Grayson County Courthouse Saturday in remembrance of George Hughes, a black farmhand who was lynched in 1930 in an act of mob justice. The event culminated in the destruction of the Grayson County Courthouse.

Hughes was later taken into custody after he was found hiding in a field. He is alleged to have fired upon the arresting officers as he was taken into custody.

In the days leading up to May 9, 1930, mobs attempted to enter the Grayson County Courthouse to reach Hughes, however, he was not in Grayson County at the time. County officials led tours of the building to prove that Hughes was not there.

The situation continued to escalate throughout the coming days before hitting its peak on May 9, the first day of the trial. Rioters breeched the courthouse attempting to make their way toward the courtroom and Hughes. The trial was halted and ultimately was not resumed.

The Texas Rangers were called in to contain the situation. The building was evacuated with the exception of Hughes, who was stayed in a fireproof vault rather than leaving the building with the crowd surrounding it.

With Hughes still inside, the mob used a gas can to set the site ablaze. Efforts to contain the fire were obstructed by the rioters and the 19th century courthouse was destroyed. The rioters returned to the ruined building later that evening and used dynamite to extract Hughes' corpse from the vault. The body was then dragged behind an automobile toward what was then a thriving business district near what is now Walnut and Mulberry streets in Sherman.

Hughes' corpse was hanged from a tree and a fire was lit underneath it using furniture from a nearby building. Many of the black-owned businesses in the area were razed that night.

 The district never recovered.

Following the riots, Texas Governor Dan Moody called the Texas National Guard into Sherman to restore order, and martial law was declared for two weeks. No one was ever indicted in the killing of Hughes, and only one person went to trial in connection with the riots.

The impacts to Sherman from the riots extended well beyond May 1930.

Development and interest in what had been described as the "Athens of Texas" diminished in the years following the riot, said Alton Blakely, senior pastor at Mount Olive Baptist Church, who spoke during the ceremony.

Likewise, the city lost the black business district as many business owners were unable to afford to rebuilding. A clause in many  insurance polices of the time excluded damage done in riots. Some ultimately left the city following the incident.

Today, a parking lot sits on what was once the district.

Crowds gathered outside the Grayson County Courthouse Saturday in remembrance of George Hughes, a black farmhand who was lynched in 1930 in an act of mob justice. The event culminated in the destruction of the Grayson County Courthouse.

"Everyone looks at it from the perspective of an angry mob taking out their frustrations on a black business community, but we don't look at the full ramifications of what that meant," Blakely said. "It had a full affect, not just on the black community, but on all of Sherman and the white and black communities."

Even today, the wounds of that day still bleed slowly in Sherman, Blakely said. While they may not be on the surface as they were nearly a century ago, the healing process still hasn't completed in part due to how the event has been buried.

"Even though it is a century later, there are people who, through oral conversation or tradition, still battle and struggle with healing," he said. "It is like slavery reparations, if it continues to pass on without acknowledgement, then it continues to pass on from generation to generation."

With regard to the marker, Thiel said she sent a letter in March asking for the  the request to be put on an upcoming agenda for the Grayson County Commissioners Court, but she has not heard back. Saturday's event included a place where members of the community could voice their support in a letter that will be sent to the commission. 

While the marker would make great progress toward healing old wounds, Thiel said Saturday's ceremony served as a start of that healing process.

"Even if we are unable to get on the agenda just yet, and we are running into problems, at least we can commemorate this as a community and come together and recognize it," she said.