Through push for new historical marker, 1930 Sherman riot starts to gain recognition

Members of a white mob lynched the body of a Black man, and burned the city’s Black business district. Some locals hadn’t even heard of the lynching until recently.

By Michael MarksOctober 29, 2021 11:32 am, , , ,

Up until the phone rang, that Friday afternoon in May of 1930 was like all the other ones Njoki McElroy had spent in her mother’s home in Dallas. McElroy’s grandmother had called from the family’s hometown of Sherman, 70 miles north. Her mother answered the phone.

“My mother was very emotional,” McElroy said. “And she began to scream and cry. I knew something terrible had happened.”

McElroy, who is Black, was 5 years old at the time. She spent her summers in Sherman. For her, it was a magical place.

“And my grandmother related the fact that they had thrown dynamite in the courthouse building, and dragged a Black man out, who had been accused of rape – raping a white woman,” McElroy said. “They set fire to the courthouse, and they dragged the Black man over to the Black business area.”

Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0.)

The proposed marker would go in front of Grayson County Courthouse in Sherman.

The white mob was enraged by George Hughes, a 41-year-old farm worker, who pleaded guilty to raping Pearl Farlow, his employer’s wife.

Texas Gov. Dan Moody sent Texas Rangers to the trial to try to keep order. But thousands of onlookers charged into the Grayson County Courthouse during Hughes’ trial. They set it on fire, and when the fire department came to extinguish the blaze, members of the mob cut their hoses.

Hughes had been locked inside the vault for his own safety, but he suffocated inside of it as the fire raged around him.

A few of the rioters tried to open the vault. They used crowbars, dynamite and an acetylene torch to crack it open, which they finally did. They removed Hughes’ body, chained it to the back of a car and drove a few blocks north to city’s Black business district.

“I remember his body bouncing behind the car. Bouncing really is the word for it; it wasn’t sliding. Of course, as he went by, the crowd would spit and attempt to kick him and all this sort of thing,” said Ralph Elliott, a former district judge and former Sherman resident, who spoke to historian Donna Kumler.

Members of the mob lynched Hughes’ body in front of Goodson’s Drug Store, on the corner of Mulberry and Branch. They used the store’s furniture as kindling to set his body on fire. Then they burned down the city’s Black business area.

It had been a thriving part of town. William J. Durham, one of the country’s leading civil rights attorneys, kept his office there. There were businesses such as an undertaker and a funeral parlor, a movie theater and a doctor’s office, all of which burned.

McElroy’s family stayed in Sherman, but many other Black families left for good.

“They never regained that business and that type of prosperity because so many people moved from Sherman,” McElroy said.

Newspaper reports said that police officers made no attempt to stop the mob, and often mingled among them. Afterward, they arrested 39 people on charges related to the riot. Only one person was ever convicted.

As the years went by, McElroy still spent her summers in Sherman. Then she grew up, got her doctorate, taught Black literature and folklore, and wrote about her childhood.

Sherman grew, too. In the 90 years that followed, nobody talked much about what had happened. But that changed in 2020.

“When George Floyd was murdered in May of 2020, I saw that, and I think a lot of people who saw that; they were sparked to action or outrage,” said Melissa Thiel, a historian and lifelong Grayson County resident.

Thiel knew the general outline of what had happened in Sherman in 1930, and she thought it deserved a historical marker. She’d just completed her master’s degree in public history from Texas Women’s University. So, after Floyd’s murder, she started researching the Sherman riot in detail.

She found that even though she’d lived in the area her whole life, there were key parts of the story she’d never heard. George Hughes’ lynching, for example, was new to her. As was the scale of the property destruction.

“I was in shock that it was as big as it was,” Thiel said.

It reminded her of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, when homes and businesses belonging to Black residents of that city were destroyed after a Black man was accused of assaulting a white woman.

“It was on a smaller scale; we didn’t have the loss of life that they did in Tulsa. But this was a huge event. It made the New York Times and The Washington Post in the 1930s; it made newspapers in London. And for this to be such a huge and tragic event and no one knows about it here? That was just so eye-opening to me,” Thiel said.

To get an official marker from the Texas Historical Commission – one of those black and silver plaques you see near old buildings – the state requires an applicant to first write a research paper about whatever they’re trying to commemorate.

Thiel did that, and got it approved by the county’s historical commission. She then needed the Grayson County Commissioners’ Court to sign off on the proposed location for the marker: the grounds of the county courthouse.

That’s when things hit a snag.

“For six months we requested to be on the commissioners’ court agenda, and they just would ignore us every time,” Thiel said.

One of Grayson County’s Commissioners, Jeff Whitmire, said he wasn’t sure why it took so long for the court to take up the historical marker.

Some constituents had concerns about a marker possibly honoring George Hughes. But as long as the marker’s text was factual, Whitmire says he was good with it from the start.

None of the other three commissioners responded to requests to comment. Neither did Grayson County Judge Bill Magers. During those six months she tried to get on their agenda; they wouldn’t respond to Melissa Thiel either.

So she held a meeting to organize support for the marker, which drew about 40 people. They made a plan to keep the issue top of mind.

“One of the things we did is we had speakers come speak every Tuesday at the commissioners’ asking the judge and commissioners to put this marker on the agenda,” she said.

Every public comment period from March to October, people took to the mic to lobby for the marker. Thiel and other volunteers also spoke at local churches to rally support.

A breakthrough came in October. Grayson County Judge Magers appointed a task force to look at the proposed language for the marker and make a recommendation.

This extra step hadn’t happened for any other historical marker in Grayson County. And the appointed committee didn’t include anyone from Thiel’s team. It included community leaders from local churches and schools, as well members of Sherman’s city council.

In the end, the group approved language that was pretty close to what she’d written in the first place.

“I felt like it was the kind of thing that communities, particularly in our time, should do more often when there are issues,” said Welton Stoker, a member of the appointed committee.

Stoker is also a retired schoolteacher, and a deacon at Parkview Church of Christ in Sherman. He said that the committee met once, and all the members had a chance to speak. Concerns about relitigating George Hughes’ guilt or innocence were brought up, but quelled, Stoker said. It was a pretty healthy exercise, according to Stoker.

On Oct. 12 the historical marker question finally appeared on the Grayson County Commissioner’s Court agenda. The court voted 3-2 to approve the marker.

The issue in isn’t completely resolved yet. The Texas Historical Commission is currently considering whether to approve the text of the marker. If it gets the go-ahead, there will be a decision to make on exactly where it will be placed on the courthouse grounds.

Officials for the City of Sherman are also considering putting up an additional marker within the city limits to remember the event.

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