Sunday, March 17, 1996
Grayson County Sesquicentennial
Section 2, Page 11
ANGRY MOB RULES IN May, 1930
COURTHOUSE BURNING REMEMBERED
The corner of Mulberry and Branch streets is still ugly - a profusion of railroad tracks, ramshackle buildings and ragweed. Sixty-six years ago the intersection was the scene of Sherman's most horrifying and shameful episode.
There the body of George Hughes was sexually mutilated, hung on a tree and burned in a bonfire. Two days earlier Hughes, a 41-year-old black man, had confessed to raping a white woman.
The tragedy of May 9, 1930 extended far beyond the initial crimes. The enraged mob destroyed the thriving three block black business district. The fuel to fire Hughes' funeral pyre was gathered from the ruins. Sherman's black community has never regained the wherewithal to rebuild.
The Sherman Daily Democrat's 1930 account said, "Short work was made of the furnishings of the drug store and the kindling wood into which they were reduced was used for starting and keeping aglow the fire which mutely but forcefully evidenced the penalty the inexorable law of racial separation exacts on its violators."
White residents also sustained heavy losses. Rioters burned and dynamited the Grayson County Court House. County officials and workers risked their lives to stave off the crowd.
Gov. Dan Moody declared martial law and the Texas National Guard moved in to protect the city from looters and further mob violence. Even The London Times reported the horror in Sherman.
The incident itself was not unusual. In May of 1930 three black men in North Texas and southern Oklahoma, charged with similar crimes, were killed by raving mobs. In each case, riotous whites whipped themselves into frenzies of destruction. They all inflicted postmortem mayhem on their victims.
What was different about the Sherman events was the quality of life the city's black community had built for itself. In 1930 most black businesses here were located in the two-story, brick Andrews Building in the 200 block of East Mulberry. The building was owned by a successful black farmer from Bells. A. J. Lawrence owned a grocery store, E. M. Barrier was a shoemaker, N. S. Everett & Brother was a transfer company.
The Andrews Theater was next door to Walker & Tellies and J. A. Sims, tailors. Mrs. Hollie Robinson's Restaurant was down the way. Fraternal Funeral Home was in the Andrews Building as was a dance hall. J. D. Godson had a drugstore downstairs from his brother Samuel Godson's doctor's office. Blanche Crows put her dressmaking shop next to R. L. Crows’ tailor shop. J. P. Hampton had his shoemaker shop in the same building as did J E. Richardson. The Williams Hotel sat just across the street.
Sherman's black population had its own Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias and Masonic Lodge. Many black professionals made their way to Sherman. Dr. R. L. Staghound and another black dentist practiced here. A funeral home competed with Fraternal. Blacks practiced law and engineering in the town. There was also another black physician. Alexander Bate, a retired science teacher and coach, was 22 years old the night George Hughes' body was dragged through East Sherman and burned. Bate and his wife Peaches live only three doors down from his family home on Montgomery Street. In 1930 he
witnessed the tragedy from his roof top. The following is his account, given in 1990. "Oh, yes, I saw it. They set that (Andrews) building on fire. I got up on top of my house with a bucket of water. There were big old sparks raining down from the fire. Just about every- body in the 600 block of Montgomery left. They were just scared to death. Now my mother had her leg amputated and she didn't have her wooden leg yet. We didn't have any transportation. My Dad said, “Son, we'll have to stay here.” He gave me the shotgun and I took it back up on the roof. I only had five shells for it. But he had a .32-20 pistol and a whole box of shells. He walked from our house down to the Masonic Lodge and some old guys came out with two gallons of gas and were going to burn down the Masonic Lodge. He drew down with that .32-20 and they got out of there so fast, I believe they just about broke every spring in that old car of theirs trying to get away from my papa. Late that night, they were working on the Court House with dynamite, trying to get him (George Hughes) out of there. They drug him right down this street (Crockett). It was the most disgusting thing I have ever seen.
"There were two pregnant ladies, so big you'd have thought they were about to have those babies right then. They were right behind where they were dragging him. They were hopping up and down and squealing and laughing. The whole street was full of people.
They all went down to the Union Station. “They cut his organ off and stuck it in his mouth. They tied him to a tree and burnt him up.”
"A lot of people kept hogs in town in those days and the black people went and hid in the hog pens for safety. The people were afraid. They went to stay with their families in other towns and with the white people they worked for. I worked for the Marks Brothers and they told me I could bring Papa and Mama out to stay with them, but by then things were getting better, so we stayed.
"Then the Governor, who was one of the most popular governors ever, sent in the troops and said don't shed no blood. They came and the rain came and everything cooled down." The mob required a considerable amount of cooling down. Its temper had simmered for five days, fueled by newspaper accounts of the crimes. The event of Hughes’ trial attracted a crowd of more than 5,000 people from all over north Texas and southern Oklahoma.
Eventually two Texas National Guard units and at least three Texas Rangers were dispatched by Moody.
Most people in the area learned of the crimes when they read their Sunday papers May 4, 1930. A banner headline said, "NEGRO HELD FOR ASSAULT NEAR LUELLA".
Woman Victim Alone in Farm Home. Bart Ship Fired on Twice in Taking Negro
The story detailed the incident, including Hughes' apprehension. The newspaper erred in saying Hughes was under guard at the Grayson County Jail. Hughes actually stayed in Dallas. That error drew the crowd that posted an increasingly rowdy vigil on the Court House lawn for five days.
George Hughes was from Honey Grove in Fannin County. Prior to the assault, he had worked at several different farms, including the place near Luella. The Sherman Daily Democrat May 5 reported from the victim's statement, "(Hughes) had come to the house about 10 o'clock (a.m.) inquiring for her husband. He said he wanted to collect a sum of money he claimed to be owed to him by her husband. Told that he was in Sherman, (Hughes) left. He returned shortly afterward with a double- barreled shotgun, finding the woman in the kitchen of the home.
"Ordering her hands in the air, (Hughes) forced her into a bedroom where the alleged assault occurred. Part of her clothing was torn off before she was overcome. Following the assault and with a piece of telephone or electric light cord her hands were bound about her head and tied to a post of the bed and the woman left in that position. “Hughes fled the house”, the account said. He went to a nearby barn to search for the woman's little boy who had run from the house shortly before Hughes had entered.
Two men neighbors walking along the road were alerted by the boy's and the woman's screams, the statement said. Hughes saw them coming and ran into a terraced field near Choctaw Creek. Hughes fired a shot at them, but missed. The woman succeeded in untying herself and ran to a neighbor's house. Hughes fired twice at Deputy Bart Ship as he and another man chased the suspect across a field. The shot missed both men but broke the windshield and sprayed the seat between them.
The suspect was disarmed and handcuffed without further problems. The next day's headlines promised swift justice. The complaint was filed Monday, May 6 in a special session of the 15th State District Court. Four witnesses testified. The county attorney read the victim's statement and another from the suspect. The two accounts coincided. Hughes was charged with three counts of assault and two counts of attempted murder. The crowds outside the Court House grew. A white man who asked to remain anonymous described the scene on Friday morning, May 9, 1930.
"I was working in a drug store across the street from the Court House. Two Texas Rangers brought in a Negro. He had chains on his hands and legs. Both Rangers had rifles. They took him into the street and motioned him into the Court House. “He was to be tried that morning in the Court House on the southwest corner. There were so many people outside. Young people, 14, 15, 16. They came from Whitesboro, Gunter, Oklahoma, Whitewright, Pittsburgh. Newspaper accounts said the trial began about 10 a.m., but only the first witness was able to testify. The crowd outside was more than noisy - it was angry, violent and armed. “They started using dynamite." the drug store clerk said. "They came in to get something to drink like a soda water. They had a stick of dynamite in their hand. People I'd never seen before. Everything was going off, shotguns, dynamite, everything. They wanted to get this (black) fellow and hang him. That's what they wanted to do. They (prosecutors) wanted to bring this woman in - she was in the hospital - that he had raped so she could identify him. They shouldn't have done it because that made everybody mad." The Sherman Daily Democrat said the woman did testify. She went to the Court House by ambulance and left the same way - overcome by tear gas detonated by Texas Rangers to push back the now savage crowd.
"The Court House had those old wooden floors and big, open windows," the clerk said. “People would come in with these big 10-gallon cans of gasoline and throw them in the window and onto the floor."
Judge R. M. Carter, realizing the building was ablaze, ordered a change of venue "to prevent bloodshed." The judge, court officers, sheriff, deputies and Rangers found the stairway blocked by fire. Firefighters extended a ladder to the second floor and they escaped. Although accounts vary, Hughes evidently was offered the choice of staying in a sealed steel vault or climbing down the ladder to the waiting mob. He decided to stay and was locked in the room with a bucket of water.
"That was about 5 p.m.," the drug store clerk said. "The wall had fallen down and had cooled off enough. A man came up with a welding truck and carried a torch up the ladder and cut down through the lock. He walked up there and got that (black man) and said, “Hey I got him!" Some reports of the time said Hughes was alive when he was pulled from the vault. Others say he suffocated from the intense heat of the fireproof room. The most credible account said Hughes died when shrapnel from the dynamited vault walls flew across the room and struck him in the head.
Judge R. C. Vaughan, retired from the 15th State District Court, was 14 and in the ninth grade in Denison at the time of the events. “A friend of mine and I actually slipped off in my parents' car to come to Sherman," Vaughan said. "The Court House had pretty much burned then. We managed to get even with the east entrance on Travis Street. The steel vault's shell was apparently intact. "Someone climbed up to the vault and put goggles on and torched the vault. Then an explosion blew a hole in something. The man on the ladder got this defendant's body out and threw it down the ladder. I could see movement in a group of men to the north and west. Then I was aware that a car was going east on Houston Street. I can't say I saw the body, but people were following the car. We followed the mob on Mulberry. They strung his body on a tree and lit a bonfire. I think I could feel heat and hear flesh sizzle. Someone hollered, "Police!" and we broke and ran.”
Many of the people in the crowd were young boys. What seemed to horrify people all over the world who read accounts was that women, some pregnant, some carrying small children, stood at the scene and urged the men on to greater violence. Most accounts say that no local people were involved. Of the 39 men eventually arrested for the riot, arson and attempted murder, 18 were from Sherman. Fourteen were indicted, but newspapers of the time have been robbed of information about where those indicted lived. The only editions remaining on file at the Sherman Democrat were mutilated long ago. William Hill also lived in Sherman at the time of the tragedy. “I don't know why we never built it (the business district) back up." Hill said in 1990. "I kind of think some of the people never felt like putting their money back into it. I guess they were scared that the climate was bad and they could lose it all again. Andrews was probably the most qualified to rebuild, but he had been killed two years before. His family just never seemed interested."
Hill said the gap in services was filled by white practitioners. “Many went to white doctors and dentist." Hill said. "You could shop in grocery stores and clothing stores as long as you had money. There never was any discrimination in spending money."
An accomplishment in Sherman years later helped heal many wounds. Because of cooperation among white and black business leaders, the city became integrated with few angry and no violent scenes.
"I worked with a group to get job opportunities for black people in Sherman," said Bate. “The first group came from Austin College - Dr. Kline, Dr. Frank Edwards and his wife Malva, Dean Nusbaum. They organized a group at Austin College with me and my wife and William Hill, with Rev. McGruder and his wife and P.W. Neblett and his wife."
The group met for covered dish dinners and would rotate as hosts. Later the city, under mayors Josh Stephens and Herman Baker's leadership, would form similar groups. They met with law enforcement officials. They were invited to morning coffee clutches with the white businessmen in “whites only” restaurants.
The late Sherman lawyer David Brown set the pace for desegregating hiring practices and lunch bars in Sherman businesses. When Brown discovered Bate's Fred Douglass football team couldn't use the Bearcat Stadium field house and locker room, he ended the practice with one phone call.
"But Charlie Spears (late president of Grayson County State Bank) made the giant step." Bate said. "We had never been in a position before to get the experience and qualifications he needed. He took a janitor and sent him to Grayson County College and made him a teller. We had never had the opportunity before. Whenever a teacher was really in need of $75 to $100, he never turned them down, he just trusted us."
In 1984, Sherman formed a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One of its goals now is to discover how to help the black community thrive. To move toward that goal, the party awards scholarships to promising young students. It recognizes those who have made significant contributions.
Alexander Bate, while talking about the 1930 tragedy, lamented the loss of the black business district. Sherman's black community, he said, was just never the same. However, he said, although blacks lost a lot to an angry mob, many white people extended their hands in genuine friendship.
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