Michigan Has Nothing on Texas

George Hughes front-right

The “good,” gun-toting white goons who recently protested safety measures necessitated by COVID 19 at the Michigan state Capitol had nothing on “good” white folks in Sherman, Texas ninety years ago today. They burned down their own courthouse to get at a black suspect, and then burned him as well.

On May 9, 1930, a 41-year-old African American man named George Hughes was asphyxiated and then burned to a crisp in Sherman, Texas.

According to reports, Hughes had moved to the area from Honey Grove only a few months before. He had worked on various farms and was then employed at Ned Farlow’s place approximately five miles south of Sherman.

By late April he had grown frustrated with Farlow over back pay. At 10:00 am on Saturday, May 3, Hughes apparently stopped working the fields and headed to the Farlow residence carrying a double-barreled shotgun. A neighbor called the Grayson County Sheriff’s Department (from a nearby cotton gin) and Deputy Sheriff Bart Shipp responded. By the time Deputy Shipp arrived, Hughes had left the Farlow home and was walking into an alfalfa field. When Hughes spotted Deputy Shipp’s vehicle, he fired on it twice, one shot going through the windshield. Deputy Shipp emerged from his vehicle uninjured and, as Hughes’s shotgun was empty, arrested him.

It is unclear what transpired at the Farlow residence, but it can be assumed that Mrs. Farlow was alone and Hughes made an ill-advised visit to address unresolved issues of unpaid wages. Whatever occurred, Hughes was later charged with criminal assault. One account suggested Hughes had bound Mrs. Farlow’s hands and feet with bailing wire; another report stated that Hughes had sexually assaulted Mrs. Farlow.

Due to the volatile nature of the charges, Grayson County authorities had Hughes transferred out of the county jail for his own safety. On Tuesday, May 6, a white mob attempted to retrieve Hughes and law enforcement personnel confronted the vigilantes, firing into the air to warn them off. District Attorney Joe Cox appeared and informed the mob that Hughes was not in the facility, but the mob was distrustful and requested that Cox allow a mob “committee” to search the jail. Cox acquiesced and the committee was unable to find Hughes.

After the mob’s first attempt to seize Hughes, Grayson County authorities contacted state officials and requested assistance from the Texas Rangers. On May 7, Texas Ranger Captain Frank Hamer, Sgt. J. B. Wheatley, J. E. McCoy and J. W. Aldrich left Austin at 4:25 pm and arrived in Sherman that evening.

On March 9, Hughes’s short-lived trial began and the events that followed are best conveyed by eye-witness participant, Captain Hamer:

On the morning of the 9th of May the negro was brought into the court room. The jury was empaneled, the trial proceeded to get under way. It was while the first State witness was on the stand testifying, that the crowd made a rush on the District Court room to get the prisoner and in their attempt to do so, two double doors opening into a hallway near the District Court room were broken down. The District Judge [R. M. Carter] ordered the prisoner locked up in the District Attorney’s [second-story] vault and then we immediately proceeded to disperse the mob, which we did by use of our guns, without firing, and tear gas bombs. The District Judge and other officials then decided that a change of venue should be ordered in the case. The crowd made two other attempts to rush the court room on the second floor and was beaten back each time. I instructed my men that the next time they rushed the courthouse that I would fire on the mob, but for them to hold their fire until I gave orders to shoot. In a few minutes the mob attempted to rush the court room again, coming up the stairways and I fired a shotgun loaded with buckshot, wounding two men, so it was reported to us, this stopped the mob. I had heard a number of them say prior to the time that I fired on them, that ‘you can’t shoot us.’ It never occurred to me what they meant until a newspaper man came up stairs and showed me a message that he said he had received over the A. P. wires reading as from the Governor, ‘protect the negro if possible, but do not shoot anybody.’ I informed him that I had received no such message, however, at this time, this report seemed to have been well-circulated among the crowd.

I saw the District Judge and told him about this report and informed him that I didn’t believe the Governor would issue such orders, because we probably could not hold the prisoner if such order was issued. One of the agitators walked to the foot of the stairway and asked me if I was going to give the prisoner up to them, I told him we were not, he says ‘well we are coming up to get him,’ I said ‘any time you feel lucky, come on, but when you start up the stairway once more, there is going to be many funerals in Sherman.’ For twenty or thirty minutes, things were quiet. They started breaking windows down stairs, the sheriff and deputies had previously gone down stairs, leaving myself and men to guard the negro and the stairways, then all at once the flames from the lower story of the courthouse swept up the stairways and on up to the ceiling over our heads to the second floor and myself and men barely escaped the burning building. The flames cut us off from the vault and we could not have opened the vault if we could have gotten to it, as we did not know the combination, so we came out and down into the crowd.

When the mob was unsuccessful at taking custody of Hughes by force and then couldn’t get Captain Hamer to relinquish custody of him, vigilantes threw gasoline into the basement or somewhere along the first floor and ignited it. As squadrons of the Sherman Fire Department arrived and attempted to fight the conflagration, members of the mob held them back and severed their fire hoses.

When three hundred National Guardsmen (sent by Governor Moody) arrived to assist the Rangers in getting the situation under control, the mob—which had grown to number in the thousands—and Guardsmen clashed in pitched battles. As the Guardsmen were vastly outnumbered and generally disinclined to fire on American citizens, they suffered dozens of injuries and were forced to retreat to the county jail and fortify it to protect themselves and other members of law enforcement personnel.

The mob eventually learned that Hughes had been placed in the District Attorney’s large, second-story vault and set about laying hold of him. By 4:00 pm, the courthouse was gutted but the vault was still standing. The mob repeatedly, but unsuccessfully placed dynamite (utilizing ladders) to open the vault door and then employed it in conjunction with cuts to the outer casing by an acetylene torch. Later that evening a blast finally blew in the vault door and Hughes was discovered unconscious (one account indicated that part of his head was smashed in). Hughes’s body was dropped down one of the ladders and struck the ground with a dull thud.

Members of the mob tied a chain around Hughes’s body, affixed the chain to an automobile and dragged him “down to niggertown.” The gruesome cavalcade ended at a tree near a two-story office building which housed several African American businesses, including a drug store, a beauty shop, an undertaker and a tailor. Hughes’s body was hung from the tree by a chain and vigilantes piled up boxes underneath it. The mob set the boxes on fire and then burned down the African American office building. A reinforcement of Guardsmen arrived at approximately 2:00 am and the mob dispersed.

On Saturday, May 10, images of the mob, the riot and the courthouse fire appeared in newspapers across Texas and the nation. Just after dawn, the Rangers and Guardsmen cut down Hughes’ remains and sent them to a white undertaker (as the African American undertaker’s parlor had been torched) and then sought out the hundreds of Sherman’s black citizens who had fled into the surrounding thickets, hidden under homes or otherwise taken refuge. The Guardsmen transported them back to the African American section of the community. According to the Fort Worth Star Telegram, “not a negro was seen in the town from 2 p. m. Friday until Saturday daybreak, although Sherman claimed a negro population of 1,500 to 2,000.” When the returning African Americans and their escort got back to their neighborhood, they discovered typewritten ultimatums warning black citizens to leave the city within twenty-four hours.

Fifteen suspected mob participants were arrested and several injured National Guardsmen were transferred to a Dallas hospital. As further rioting was expected, state officials ordered additional Guardsmen to Sherman and these reinforcements were supplemented by almost fifty law enforcement personnel from surrounding counties. A Fort Worth contingent, for example, was ordered to protect the main school and church in the African American section of Sherman and set up machine gun positions at vantage points on streets leading to these locations. Guardsmen prohibited white citizens from entering black neighborhoods without specific, approved reasons.

The Telegram would later refer to the rioting the night before as an “orgy” of violence and destruction, and Sherman Mayor J.S. Eubank [Though a Grayson County native, Jessie Shain Eubank (January 20, 1884 – June 7, 1942) was mayor of Corsicana from 1923-1925 before he served as mayor of Sherman.] would blame it on outsiders, claiming “Sherman has been made a victim of circumstance.”

At 10:45 pm on May 10, Governor Moody declared a state of martial law after noting that “reputable citizens and officers of Sherman, including Judge B.M. Carter, have reported to me that the mob threatens to form again,” further endangering the safety and security of the community.

By May 11, Guardsmen were posted with machine guns at the county jail and every corner of the courthouse square. They began patrolling the city and forbade the congregation of more than three citizens at a time on any city street.

On Monday, May 12, a military court began conducting a probe into the rioting, gathering testimony that would be used when the Grayson County grand jury convened the following week.

On Tuesday, May 20, the grand jury indicted fourteen suspects in seventy counts of five separate offenses, including rioting, rioting to commit arson, utilizing explosives to commit arson, rioting to commit murder and burglary of the courthouse—no one was indicted in the death of George Hughes.

The Sherman citizens charged were Jimmie Arnold, C.E. Briggs, Leslie Cole, Jeff (Slim) Jones, Jim May, J.B. McCastland, Alvin Morgan, Horace Reynolds, Bill Sofey and Cleo Wolfe. Four other men from Van Alstyne were charged: Roy Allen, Leonard (Baldy) O’Neal, Web Purdom and Jess Roper. The bond for every suspect was set at $5,000 and their cases were transferred to Dallas County for trial.

On Saturday, May 24, martial law ended at 12:00 noon and the Sherman rioting suspects were transferred to a Dallas jail. On May 27, federal charges alleging a civilian attempt to disarm national guardsmen was filed against Sherman residents John Edwards, Will Hamilton and Floyd Sheppard and Waxahachie resident John Simmons, each man’s bond being set at $2,000. Hamilton and Edwards immediately posted bond and the officials of Grayson County filed a $100,000 insurance claim on the courthouse even though the policy the county carried on the courthouse contained a disclaimer invalidating recompense in the case that the edifice was destroyed by rioting.

On June 23, 1930, Dallas County District Court Judge Charles A. Pippen denied a plea to reduce the bond set for the Sherman riot defendants and postponed the trial until September. By early September, ten of the riot defendants had posted the $5,000 bonds, leaving only Arnold, McCasland, Morgan and Wolfe in Dallas County custody. On September 10, Judge Pippen announced that the hearings for the Sherman riot defendants would commence on September 29. On September 26, Judge Pippen postponed the hearings until November because the Grayson County District Attorney was busy with several other cases.

When the Sherman riot trial began, Defense Attorney J.A. Carlisle filed two separate motions to postpone the case again and transfer the hearings back to Grayson County. Judge Pippen overruled both motions and then had a disheartening encounter with an ugly Dallas County mindset.

Of the sixty-eight prospective jurors interviewed for the trial, sixty—almost 90%—declared openly that they would not convict the defendants even if the State demonstrated their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Attributing prospective juror prejudice to the publicity the riot had received, Judge Pippen noted that Dallas County sentiment “is overwhelmingly against the State’s case without regard to the facts or guilt of those engaged in violation of the law” and transferred the hearings to the Travis County District Court.

J.B. McCasland’s arson trial commenced in Austin in June of 1931 and he was convicted in a matter of weeks. In July he pled guilty to a charge of rioting and the three other charges against him were dismissed. McCasland was sentenced to two years for each offense, and the sixty-six cases against the other defendants were then transferred to Cooke County (Gainesville).

In Gainesville, County Attorney William C. Culp asked for a dismissal of the indictments against Roy Allen, Jimmie Arnold, C.E. Briggs, Leslie Cole, Jim May, Alvin Morgan, Leonard (Baldy) O’Neal, Horace Reynolds, Bill Sofey and Cleo Wolfe because he believed the evidence against them was insufficient to ensure a conviction. The court agreed and released all ten. Cases against remaining defendants Jeff Jones, Webb Purdom and Jess Roper were scheduled for January 1932.

On June 3, 1932, the indictments against Jones, Purdom and Roper were dismissed (with the consent of the Grayson County district attorney) due to insufficient evidence by Cooke County Judge Ben W. Boyd.

  • Excerpt from Black Holocaust: The Paris Horror and a Legacy of Texas Terror (Eakin Press, 2015).
  • 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..