After Months of Heated Debate, Commissioners Approve Marker Remembering 1930 Sherman Riot

courtesy Melissa Thiel
An angry mob destroyed the original Grayson County Courthouse.
Seated in the front row of the packed room on Tuesday, historian Melissa Thiel joined in the wave of applause. Grayson County commissioners had just approved the placement of a marker commemorating a lynching and riot that had occurred at the Sherman courthouse more than 90 years ago.

For a year and a half, Thiel had fought for the marker's installation on the courthouse's grounds, hitting roadblocks along the way. Some wanted to forget the blight on Sherman’s record, but to Thiel, it was important that the North Texas city and its some 44,000 residents acknowledge the past.

“This is a historical moment,” Thiel said after the vote. “For the first time ever, our county has recognized what happened here.”

In 1930, a local Black farm laborer named George Hughes was accused of raping his boss’ wife, who was white. When he was on trial, a mob of some 5,000 people swarmed the courthouse and set it ablaze, with Hughes still inside.

Next, the horde used dynamite to retrieve Hughes' body. A car dragged his corpse to the town’s Black business district before hanging and setting his body on fire. The mob also burned down Black businesses, resulting in the loss of generations of wealth.

No one was ever charged with murder or lynching.

Thanks to Thiel’s efforts, the proposed Texas Historical Marker made national headlines, including a June write-up in The Washington Post. The push to remember Sherman’s history comes at a time when America is reckoning with its own racist past, with many conservative lawmakers attempting to prevent teachers from discussing racism in schools.

Thiel started the movement to install the marker, but she was joined by other Grayson County residents in forming a citizens’ committee. Week after week, they pressured the county to add the marker to the agenda — a request that repeatedly went ignored.

Then, two weeks ago, county officials appointed a separate committee to consider how to recognize the riot, according to the Herald Democrat. No one from Thiel’s group was asked to join.

"You can’t approve of one history and not approve of another." – Melissa Thiel, historian

tweet this
The committee’s recommended wording closely mirrored what Thiel’s group had already submitted, she said. Although she’s concerned about whether the county’s version is totally accurate, Thiel said she’s happy with the wording overall.

She’s proud of her team for their efforts, she added.

“It’s almost surreal, she said. “I might shed some tears tonight once it sinks in.”

Al Hambrick, president of the local NAACP, served as the county committee’s co-chair. He said the court’s decision is significant because all history is important — the good as well as “the not so good.”

“I don’t think people will stop thinking about it, but hopefully this will help add some type of closure and we can move forward,” Hambrick said.

Many supporters were elated after Tuesday’s meeting, but not everyone was sure that a marker is the right move. Ahead of the vote, Commissioner Bart Lawrence told meeting attendees that his ancestors came to Grayson County in 1876 and that he’d lived there his entire life.

“I would never vote to do anything that I thought would harm Grayson County in any way or tarnish its reputation,” Lawrence said. “But I believe the wording on this proposed plaque promotes divisiveness, not healing.”

Thiel disagrees that the marker would be divisive. The effort to install it has brought to the community together — Republicans and Democrats — under one cause, she said.

“How can this history be divisive but all the Confederate memorials at the courthouse not be divisive? You can’t have it both ways,” she said. “You can’t approve of one history and not approve of another. That’s propaganda — that’s not history — and that’s why we have historians writing history, not politicians.”

Grayson County notes on its website that the first Confederate monument erected in the state stands on its courthouse square.

Moving forward, Thiel hopes her group will have a say in the marker’s wording so that they can help ensure it’s historically accurate. She’d also like to make sure that its placement is appropriate and not “stuck back in a corner.”

Prior to the vote, Sherman resident Yolanda Boyd told commissioners that for her, Tuesday was a historic day. Markers serve to educate townsfolk and visitors alike, she said, and one commemorating the murder would motivate others to have an interest in local history.

The marker will instill “something of a subliminal message” into community members that they should always do the right thing, she said.

“If we will allow justice to prevail in its true definition, fair and right,” Boyd said, “this marker can allow us to do what? To never, ever let it happen again.”