Sun, October 17, 2021


Battle to commemorate a brutal Texas lynching finally gets its day in court, 91 years later

The drumbeat to commemorate the Jim Crow lynching of George Hughes, a Black farmhand accused of raping a White woman in Grayson County, Texas, began in the winter of 2020. It continued into the spring and on through the summer.

The effort was unyielding: a Facebook page, YouTube videos, an anniversary gathering to mark the 1930 tragedy, a town hall forum, thousands of signatures on a petition. Every week, supporters requested that a vote on a historical marker on the courthouse grounds be placed on the public agenda of the county's governing body. They spoke without fail at every meeting.

Melissa Thiel poses for a portrait outside the Grayson County courthouse. Thiel, a county native and public historian, led a successful effort to install a historical marker on the courthouse grounds to commemorate the lynching of a Black man and a White-led riot there in 1930.

Photo by Cooper Neill for The Washington Post

And yet for months there was no decision, not a promise of one, not even a word. "People said, 'You can't do this, not in Grayson County,' " which is overwhelmingly White and Republican, said Melissa Thiel, the preacher's daughter and local public historian who led the effort.

"I thought, 'They're right,' " she said. " 'I can't do this, but we can' . . . They can't put us off forever."

On Tuesday, forever ended. After months of silent delay - and nearly a century of community denial - the all-White Commissioners Court voted narrowly to permit the placement of the marker on the courthouse grounds.

"We are a nation founded on the basis of laws, and the destructive actions of a vigilante mob on the grounds of what we consider to be the center of justice should be condemned and not whitewashed away from our history," said Commissioner Jeff Whitmire, who voted in favor of the marker.

"We as a court and the community as a whole have wasted too much time dealing with what should have been a mundane situation permitting a metal marker describing a historical event," Whitmire said.

In May 1930, Hughes was arrested for allegedly assaulting the wife of his boss after trying to collect $6 in payment for his farm labor.

He was brought to the Grayson County courthouse in Sherman for his trial on May 9, 1930 - a year when the resentments of the Great Depression spurred a threefold increase in lynchings across the nation.

Hughes's harrowing murder, and the events surrounding it, were the small rural North Texas county's version of the cataclysmic anti-Black lynchings and riots that struck Tulsa and so many other communities across the nation in the violently racist early decades of the 20th century.

A mob of about 5,000 White people surrounded the courthouse and jammed the corridors. Hughes, supposedly protected by Texas Rangers, including the legendary Capt. Francis A. Hamer, was locked inside a walk-in document vault in the second story of the courthouse. The enraged mob lit the building on fire, and Hughes, 41, suffocated.

The rioters then took Hughes's charred body, chained it to a car and dragged it to the town's Black business district, where they hung it from a cottonwood tree, mutilated it and lit a fire beneath it. Then they burned the commercial area down and warned Black residents to leave town. Many of them did.

The governor called in hundreds of Texas National Guard troops and declared martial law. The violent events made headlines around the world.

Yet when Thiel, who is White, encountered the events 90 years later while working on her master's degree in public history, there had been no public recognition of Hughes's lynching and what became known as the Sherman Riot. A plaque on the courthouse grounds now simply mentions that the old court building burned down. No one talked about - or seemed to know - what actually happened.

After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Thiel, whose family has lived in Grayson County for generations, set out to erect a historical marker near the courthouse entrance.

The stonewalling started shortly after Thiel received approval from the county historical commission for the marker. The manager of the marker program, Brian Hander, sent an email to Judge Bill Magers, head of the Commissioners Court, on Nov. 16 telling him the marker had been approved and was ready for the commissioners to consider as part of the state requirement that a marker receive permission from the landowner.

In early December, Thiel said she received a call from Magers telling her that contrary to Hander's understanding, the marker had not been approved by the historical commission. Shortly afterward, Hander resigned, citing his suspicion that the county was trying to undermine the approval process for the marker, in part by calling a public hearing, a first in Hander's decade-long tenure.

The then-chairwoman of the county historical association, Teddie Ann Salmon, invited Thiel to a private meeting in February and suggested that the lynching and riot were set in motion by Hughes's alleged actions.

In March, Thiel decided to take her crusade public, pressing the Commissioners Court to approve the marker.

Six months passed, and the elected officials appeared unmoved. Then in late September, Magers, facing reelection next year, appointed his own committee of citizens - which did not include Thiel or members of her group - to report back to the court on what to do.

On Tuesday, before the committee announced its decision and the Commissioners Court cast its vote, the marker's supporters spoke once again.

"Today is a historic day for me because you see the topic of the historical marker is on the agenda," said Yolanda Boyd, a Black resident of Sherman. "I believe, when read, [the marker] will allow us to take away something of a subliminal message within ourselves that this will never happen again, that we are to do the right thing, that we will never hurt anyone."

The citizens' committee endorsed the marker, adopting Thiel's wording for the inscription almost in its entirety, albeit with a few changes Thiel believes undermine its historical accuracy. Three of the five Commissioners Court members then voted in favor. Phyllis James voted no, repeating her pledge to vote in a way that reflects the views of the majority of Grayson County. And so did Bart Lawrence, saying the wording on the plaque "provokes divisiveness," although he did not say how.

The court will now submit the application to the Texas Historical Commission.

Even though Thiel has found the process a bit galling, she said a yes is still a yes.

"We got our yes vote," Thiel said. "We weren't sure how it was all going to go down. . . . It's a little surreal. . . . This is a huge move forward."

And yet she worries: Will the wording be factual after it's negotiated with the state? Will the marker be erected in a "respectable" place on the courthouse grounds where visitors can easily absorb what happened on May 9, 1930, and remember the Black man who was lynched there, the livelihoods destroyed?

The drumbeat may have faded, but it has not stopped.

"This is my baby and I want to make sure it's done right from the beginning to the end," Thiel said. "It's important that that happens."

By The Washington Post · Sydney Trent

Published : October 13, 2021

By : The Washington Post