Approved: Commissioners to allow placement of historic marker to recognize courthouse burning, 1930 riot

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Joe Brown and Al Hambrick speak before Grayson County commissioners Tuesday and give the recommendation that the county approved placement of a marker commemorating the 1930 Sherman riot and the lynching of George Hughes.

Ninety-one years after the killing and lynching of George Hughes, the events surrounding the incident may soon be commemorated on a Texas Historic Marker in Grayson County.

The placement of the marker was approved in a 3-2 vote with County Judge Bill Magers and commissioners David Whitlock and Jeff Whitmire voting in favor and commissioners Bart Lawrence and Phyllis James in opposition.

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

"The Sherman Riot of 1930 is a historically significant event worth of commemoration by the installation of a historical marker," Al Hambrick said before the commission Tuesday while voicing a recommendation of approval. "... The appropriate location  for the installation of such marker is on the grounds of the Grayson County Courthouse."

The marker relates to the 1930 lynching of George Hughes, a Black farmhand and laborer who was accused of sexually assaulting his employer's wife during a dispute over owed wages. Hughes is also alleged to have fired upon officers with a firearm when he was taken into custody.

During his trial, a mob of nearly 5,000 people gathered and attempted to gain access to Hughes who was being held in the Grayson County Courthouse. In the ensuing riot, the courthouse that was built in the 1870s was burned to the ground with Hughes locked inside a vault on one of the top floors.

More:Sherman Riot of 1930: Grayson County talks importance of listening 90 years later

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

After the fire was extinguished, members of the mob used dynamite to extract Hughes' corpse from the building. The body was then dragged behind an automobile toward the Black business district where it was hanged from a tree and a bonfire was started beneath it. The violence in Sherman continued in the hours following Hughes' death, as several Black-owned businesses were burned and destroyed.

Texas National Guard declared martial law in the city, and peace in Sherman was restored after two weeks. 

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

The most recent efforts to have the events recognized began last summer amid historic protests following the deaths of multiple Black men and women while in police custody. Local efforts were led early on by historian Melissa Thiel, who did research and made the request to have a marker place on courthouse grounds.

However, these efforts hit several roadblocks over the past year ranging from questions on if the request was approved by the Grayson County Historical Commission to months-long fight to get the item on the commissioners court agenda.

These efforts culminated in the creation of a separate committee to discuss the need for the marker two weeks ago. During Tuesday's commissioner's meeting, the committee submitted a unanimous recommendation that the request be forwarded to the Texas Historical Commission with modified wording.

"This has been a broad, diverse collective conversation on this matter in our community for quite some time," Magers said during Tuesday's commissioner's court meeting. "I believe this committee, both in its membership and recommendation, accurately and authentically represents the local interests and positions of our community in this matter."

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

Commissioner Jeff Whitmire voiced his favor for the marker placement citing both the historic nature of the events of 1930 and the factual nature of what is being presented.

"The location is appropriate, absolutely," he said. "It happened on this very location. How could it not be?"

Whitmire noted the language in the approved proposal does not exonerate Hughes nor does it favor the mob. His only complaints was that it took so much time to pass something that should have been a routine item, much like the many other historic markers on the grounds.

Crowds gathered outside the Grayson County Courthouse in May of 2021 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.

"This is not a memorial," he said. "It is not erecting something to glorify someone, something or some ideal. There is nothing to be proud of regarding the events of 1930."

More:Movement for state recognition of Sherman Riot of 1930 continues

The request did meet some pushback from some commissioners with both Lawrence and James voting in opposition.

"I just want everybody to know that I would never vote to do anything that I thought would harm Grayson County in any way ... but I believe the wording on this proposed plaque provokes divisiveness," Lawrence said.

When asked following the meeting to elaborate on the divisiveness he saw in the wording, Lawrence declined to comment.

James also voted against the placement, citing comments she previously made regarding her job to represent the majority of her constituents.

"So decisions that I make, I make for the people in the majority. There are always those with a difference of opinion, but usually they are very few, and they're a minority," James said during the Aug. 17 commissioners court meeting. "So, any decision or anything that I put on the agenda, so long as I'm commissioner, represents what the majority of the people of Grayson County want. ... I choose to make all my decisions representing the majority of the people in Grayson County."

James also said she was bothered that the name Pearl Farlow, Hughes' alleged victim, was not brought up more in the conversations regarding the legitimacy of the marker.

"There was a criminal act, and there was a victim," James said. "No one wants to talk about the victim."

More:Community visits commission to talk George Hughes

Despite Tuesday's victory, Thiel said there is still a lot of work to do before the marker can be placed. The Texas Historic Commission still needs to approve the marker. She said questions still remain as to who will continue with the request as the county is only needed to give permission for placement.

"It feels good; I think we are a step closer," Thiel said.  "However we got there, we got there. So, it feels good."

Thiel said she wasn't unhappy with the language changes, but noted that there are some issues with it. She noted that the approved language refers to Hughes' trial as a "punishment trial" while she has seen other documents refer to it was a regular trial. 

She also noted that the marker states that Hughes pleaded guilty to the crimes. While this is accurate, she noted that this ignores the nuances of Jim Crow era justice and that it wasn't unheard of for someone to plead guilty in hopes of avoiding mob justice.

More:Grayson County appoints new committee to consider recognition of 1930 lynching, riot