Movement for state recognition of Sherman Riot of 1930 continues

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Melissa Thiel speaks Thursday night regarding efforts to have a historic marker detailing the lynching of George Hughes in 1930 placed at Grayson county courthouse.

Despite delays, efforts continue to recognize a man who was denied his day in court and justice in Sherman nearly a century ago.

Organizers behind the movement to have the 1930 lynching of George Hughes recognized with a Texas historical marker held a public town hall meeting and panel Thursday night to raise awareness about the project and provide an update on the status and delays in the process.

The town hall included a question and answer session alongside a panel of project representatives, community leaders and other stakeholders.

"Everyone brings kernels of wisdom based on their own unique history and experiences," said Chele Wells, who served as master of ceremonies for the meeting. "We can't know or understand what someone else thinks unless we listen to them. We cannot have a full picture until everyone has a chance to contribute."

In 2020, local historian Melissa Thiel kickstarted efforts to have a historic marker placed on courthouse grounds detailing the events of May 1930, which led to the killing of a Black farmhand and the destruction of the Grayson County Courthouse and nearby Black business district.

While the effort has passed many local roadblocks, the request has yet to be heard by Grayson County Commissioners and has not been formally put on an agenda despite multiple requests, representatives said.

Efforts to recognize the lynching

Thiel's efforts to recognize the events of May 9,1930 started over the summer of 2020 as marches and movements for civil rights and justice reforms began following the killing of multiple Black women and women by police. The push for reforms and justice hit its peak in May and June following the murder of George Floyd, who died by asphyxia by a former police officer while in custody in Minneapolis.

Representatives behind the marker effort said there have been multiple cities in recent years across North Texas that have made efforts to recognize past lynchings and events of racial injustice.

During Thursday's meeting, Thiel said there have been some misunderstandings related to what organizers were trying to accomplish. Some thought that the effort was to create a monument to Hughes.

Crowds gathered outside the Grayson County Courthouse in May 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.

"We are asking for a Texas historical marker," Thiel said. "You see these markers on the side of the roads and in cemeteries with an emblem of the Texas state. That is what we are wanting.

"We are not asking for a statue of George Hughes. This is not a monument to George Hughes. This is simply a Texas historical marker explaining what happened in 1930."

Currently, Grayson County Courthouse is home to eight other Texas historic markers.

Thiel said the riot is only indirectly mentioned on a marker for the courthouse itself through a mention of its destruction in 1930. However, no other details of the event are given.

In order to have the marker placed at the courthouse grounds, the request must go through both the Grayson County Historic Commission, who wrote a letter in early March stating that the request meets criteria for a marker, and the Grayson County Commissioner's Court, who represent the county itself. 

While the request eventually passed through the historic commission, following confusion on previous voiced approval without a meeting or vote and further confusion on which organization should act first, the request has gone silent when it was moved forward to county commissioners.

Kurt Cichowski speaks Thursday night regarding efforts to have a historic marker detailing the lynching of George Hughes in 1930 placed at Grayson county courthouse.

Current hurdles

Kurt Cichowski, who serves as the chairman of the board for the historical marker effort, said since May, he has submitted requests each week to have the item placed on the weekly commissioners meeting along with a signed petition that currently has more than 500 signatures from Grayson County residents. In total, more than 1,600 people, including those from outside Grayson County, have signed the petition.

However, it still has not been picked up by the commission for consideration.

"All of us have written him; All of us have written our commissioners," Cichowski said. "There have been some informal, off-the-record talks between the judge and several members of the community, and I can't speak hearsay."

Cichowski speculated that the efforts may be stymied by several factors, including a feeling that the issue is addressed on the existing marker. There may also by some reluctance that this would be double-dipping as there are ongoing efforts by the city's cultural district to have a marker placed at another site to commemorate the former Black business district. However, these efforts do not need to be mutually exclusive.

Grayson County Judge Bill Magers declined an interview and instead issued a statement where he did not directly mention the efforts to get the item before the commission.

"I will continue to work with the local citizens who are interested in this matter to help facilitate an appropriate outcome that thoughtfully considers all view points, ideas and historical data," Magers said in the statement.

"Though there are many facets to this historical event, most everyone can agree that one of the major takeaways is the important role that the rule of law plays in our society and the devastating consequences that most often occur when it breaks down."

Former Sherman ISD Superintendent Al Hambrick, who currently serves as president of the Grayson County branch of the NAACP, said he has spoken to Magers and there are worries that there might not be support on the commissioner's court.

"In their minds, they're feeling as though if you bring it to a vote, and it fails, that could be worse than having no vote at all," Hambrick said.

Moving forward

Pastor Charles Brown Jr. speaks Thursday night regarding efforts to have a historic marker detailing the lynching of George Hughes in 1930 placed at Grayson county courthouse.

Members of the crowd encouraged each other to continue to bring the topic up and speak directly with commissioners to ensure that the item is at least given the chance to be considered and voted upon. The crowd suggested ideas ranging from attending each meeting until the item is address to staging sit in in the offices of county commissioners. 

"If they don't say anything, that silence means something," said Erik Jackson, one of the organizer's of the area's annual Juneteenth celebration. Juneteenth was made a national holiday this year. The date June 19th, commemorates the day slaves in Houston learned of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Others still noted that spring primaries are on the horizon, and if the commissioner's court does not want to bring up the item, others might.

During final remarks, Pastor Charles Brown Jr. said facing the past head on and admitting to past failures, as ugly as they may be, is the key to starting the healing process not only for today's generation but for those to come.

"There is no healing in hiding," he said, describing the pain from the injustices of the past as scars. "... When you look at our arms and our legs, there are scars. Scars remind us of where we have been. Scars also protect us so that we don't revisit the things that scarred us once. I think we've come to today is how we keep other people from being scarred as we've been before."

The Sherman Riots of 1930

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

The incidents that led to Hughes' lynching began in early May 1930 when Hughes went to his employer's home to seek  backpay for wages. The wife of the employer told  Hughes that he was not at home and he would need to come back later.

Hughes is alleged to have returned later and sexually assaulted his employer's wife.

Thiel said she has one of the common she gets asked is if Hughes committed this crime. Thiel said she has heard multiple version of the events that vary on if Hughes committed a crime or not. However, any proof of any of these stories has been lost to time.

"I think what is important to understand is that regardless of what George Hughes did or did not do, he did not get his day in court," Thiel said. 

Hughes was later taken into custody, but allegedly fired upon officers as they attempted to take him in.

Civil unrest began increase in the days leading up to the May 9 trial as mobs of people attempted to enter into the Grayson County Courthouse. This led officials at the time to offer tours of the building to prove that Hughes was not held there.

Hostilities continued to grow during the first day of the trial and rioters successfully breeched the courthouse and attempted to make their way into the courtroom where proceedings were taking place. The trial was halted as a precaution and ultimately never resumed.

The courthouse was evacuated with the exception of Hughes, who was placed inside a fireproof vault in the courthouse. As law enforcement worked to calm the crowds, a group of rioters set the courthouse itself on fire using gasoline.

First responders were hindered in their efforts to stop the fire, which eventually destroyed the entire building with Hughes still inside.

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

Hughes' body was pulled from the vault after the fire by members of the crowd and dragged behind an automobile toward the city's Black business district, which was located near the present-day intersection of Walnut and Mulberry Streets. Hughes was then hanged from the tree and a fire was started underneath the corpse.

Violence and unrest continued into the night as much of the Black business district was burned to the ground. Many insurance policies at the time did not cover damage that was done due to a riot, and very few of the businesses recovered.

Texas Governor Dan Moody called in the Texas National Guard to restore order in Sherman and martial law was declared for two weeks. Very few of the people involved in the riot were indicted, and no one was ever convicted in Hughes' killing.