The Worst Lynching in Texas History

On July 6, 1920 two African American men, Herman and Ervin Arthur, were burned at the stake in the Paris, Texas area.

After fighting for his country in WWI, 28-year-old Herman Arthur returned home having glimpsed a world far removed from the Jim Crow South. He joined his parents, Scott and Violet Arthur (both of whom had been born into slavery) in Paris and began working as a sharecropper for 61-year-old J. H. Hodges and his 34-year-old son, William. Herman lived in a sharecropper shack with his parents, his 18-year-old brother Ervin, three sisters (aged fourteen, seventeen and twenty) and his six-year-old nephew, Ervin Hill (named after his 18-year-old uncle).

The sharecropper arrangement the Arthurs had with the Hodges was a losing proposition and it eventually grew worse. The Hodges demanded that they work six days a week instead of five, and when the Arthurs skipped a Saturday on May 26, J. H. and William appeared at their shack unannounced (on Thursday, July 1), looking to have a word with Herman. When they discovered only two of the Arthur girls at the shack, they threw out the food the girls had been cooking and kicked the family’s stove into the yard. Then they made the two sisters undress, confiscating their clothing because they considered the Arthur family in arrears for not working the previous Saturday. When the rest of the family returned, they realized the situation was no longer tenable.

On July 2 the Arthurs began packing their things, but the Hodges reappeared with their guns up; Herman and Ervin responded in kind. According to a letter to the New York Age, J. H. and William fired on the Arthurs first and when Herman and Ervin fired back, J. H. was shot in the head and William was shot in the neck. Both men succumbed to their wounds and Herman and Ervin fled.

A massive manhunt was conducted, but the Arthur brothers had already escaped to Oklahoma. In their absence, an enraged number of the white population seized the rest of the Arthur family and placed them in the Lamar County jail “for their own protection.”

There are different versions of what happened next.

black_DVIn 1980, a 66-year-old Ervin Hill told the Chicago Tribune that Herman and Ervin returned to Paris of their own volition because they had heard the rest of their family was going to be lynched in their stead. In 1998, a 91-year-old retired, white civil attorney and Paris resident named Hardy Goodner Moore told the Tribune that the Arthur brothers were captured near Valiant, Oklahoma after they were betrayed by a black resident named Pitt McGrew. Whatever the case, Herman and Ervin returned to Paris and were placed in the county jail alongside the rest of their family.

The Arthur brothers told their story and claimed self–defense, but the facts in the case were irrelevant. Several unruly factions of the white citizenry were not amicable to a trial and signs that announced Herman and Ervin’s lynching began appearing around town. Lamar County Judge Ben H. Denton attempted to dissuade the effort, assuring his constituents that the suspects would have a speedy trial, but they didn’t want to wait.

At 7:30 pm on July 6, the Arthur brothers were removed from the county jail and taken to the Lamar County fairgrounds (on the northern edge of Paris). A lynch-mob chained them to a flagpole, tortured them and then burned them to a crisp as a crowd of 3,000 citizens looked on. Their smoldering remains were then dragged via automobile through the African American section of the city, their executioners all the while screaming “Here are the barbecued Niggers.”

Scott and Violet Arthur and their grandson Ervin Hill were subsequently released, but the Arthur sisters remained in custody. They were reportedly beaten and raped repeatedly by twenty white men and then given a bucket of molasses, a sack of flour and some bacon and advised to make themselves scarce.

The Arthur sisters eventually rejoined their father; mother and nephew and hid in the local woods until members of a local African American Masonic Lodge and a handful of white neighbors helped them escape.

On July 7, the Paris News reported that factions of the black community in Paris “were assembling and would seek revenge” for the Arthur brothers lynching that night. That evening dozens of white citizens looted guns and ammunition from local hardware stores and stood at the ready in the town square. The black “uprising” never materialized and Paris Mayor J. Morgan Crook spent the following day traveling from crowd to crowd attempting to diffuse white paranoia.

The bodies of Herman and Ervin were recovered separately and a day apart. According to the Paris News they were buried at an undisclosed location in Lamar County. According to the Chicago Tribune, they were buried in the town’s earliest African American cemetery a short distance from the fairgrounds. The Tribune also noted that a middle-class subdivision for blacks was later built on top of the cemetery.

Several elements inside and outside the state of Texas believed that the Arthurs had been innocent because they acted in self-defense, and some officials suggested they were innocent altogether because they hadn’t been involved in the shooting at all. According to the New York Times, Lamar County Sheriff William Everett “Eb” Clarkson told McCurtain County (Oklahoma) Sheriff U. W. Dewitt he was sure that one if not both of the lynched Arthur brothers was innocent.

On July 9, the NAACP protested the act of lawlessness and on July 10 a special Lamar County grand jury convened to inquire into the lynching. Nothing came out of the protest or the grand jury investigation and hundreds of African Americans subsequently left Paris.

What was left of the Arthur family arrived in Chicago on August 30, 1920. A prominent black doctor named W. W. Lucas met them at the train station and took them to the Chicago Urban League to set up temporary housing. The influential African American newspaper the Chicago Defender organized a fund for the Arthurs and eventually raised enough money for them to get their own home. Chicagoans embraced the Arthurs and they began a new life. Scott Arthur died in 1937 at the age of 101. Violet passed in 1951 at the age of 97.

Hill characterized Violet as more a mother to him than a grandmother and, though he marveled at her strength over the years, he knew she never completely got over the lynching. “There were times long after we all grew up that she would go into a room by herself,” he said, “and just moan and groan about Uncle Ervin, her baby boy, and Uncle Herman.”

On May 15, 2016, the city of Waco held a memorial on the 100th anniversary of the Waco Horror, the burning at the stake of a young, mentally disabled African American man named Jesse Washington. The sitting mayor of Waco, Malcolm Duncan, Jr., formally apologized for the incident and the community as a whole made a commitment to move forward together. Members of that city even have a historical marker addressing the issue in the works.

The centennial for the February 1, 1893 torture and burning at the stake of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas—the worst lynching in Texas History—has passed. The 100th anniversary of the burnings at the stake of Herman and Irvin Arthur is a few years away. The city of Paris, Texas should openly and formally acknowledge these atrocities, officially apologize and make some effort to atone for them. The city of Paris, Texas needs to come clean to be clean, and be clear about where they stand on this history.

Fort Worth native E. R. Bills is the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional & Nefarious and Tell-Tale Texas: Investigations in Infamous History. Read other articles by E.R..