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The Story Progressed: 1930 Grayson County Courthouse Riot and the Murder of George Hughes by Kevin Nelson


I wrote an article in October 2017 called May 9th, 1930--Mob Burns the Grayson County Courthouse. Several months later, Kevin Nelson, a law student in Albany, New York, who spent his teenage years in Sherman, read an article that referenced a national lynching memorial. Kevin then began researching lynching in Grayson County and found my article in the news section of He asked me for the picture that I did not publish due to its graphic nature, and a series of emails between us ensued.

Kevin wrote a paper about this horrific event for one of his law school courses at Albany Law School. I invite you to read his paper in its entirety. His research is so thorough that it answers the questions raised that I could not answer in my brief account of the 1930 riot and murder of George Hughes. I asked Kevin if I could interview him and publish a link to his paper. There is a link to his paper at the end of my interview with Kevin.

Interview with Kevin Nelson

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and why this historic story of this riot and murder intrigued you.

I grew up in Sherman during my teens, and I am a graduate of Sherman High School. I have maintained connections to this area and have returned countless times and maintained friendships over the years. Nevertheless, I had never heard about this lynching and the surrounding mob violence until I had a random urge to find out if one had ever happened there, sparked by reading an article one Sunday morning, while visiting Sherman, that referenced the Equal Justice Initiative’s national lynching memorial. A couple of Google searches later, and I was shocked by what I began to learn. I visited the courthouse grounds shortly afterward, before heading to church. I was surprised again when I saw that there had been a rededication ceremony for the Confederate Monument while I had been in high school, but I had never heard about that either.

Today, I am in law school, studying criminal law, constitutional law, and family law, so I can be useful in fighting for justice and the rights of people once I become a lawyer. I took a course on Critical Race Theory this past fall, and one of the requirements was writing a paper on some matter where race and law intersect. I thought back to the lynching of George Hughes, and I decided I wanted to investigate that further and see what I could learn from it and what about it might still matter today.

My conclusion on that point was that race and law were deeply intertwined throughout every aspect of that heinous episode, and when the mob chose to lynch George Hughes, it wasn’t because everything went awry, it was because they created the extra-judicial (unofficial) legal system that they wanted to have, and the people surrounding the small number of actual actors chose to tolerate or even support that. They got the legal system they wanted. It allowed prosecuting a black person for rape without the need for proof, or even evidence; it allowed murder; it allowed sidelining the true legal system; it allowed desecrating a body; it allowed burning down a courthouse; it allowed burning down a business district; it allowed running persons of color out of town. It allowed all manner of ugliness and illegality. It also allowed virtual impunity.

As I said in my paper, what is most remarkable about the lynching of George Hughes and the surrounding mob violence is the way that it illustrates how the legal system can be bent in accord with the will of enough people. For a system that is built on rules and standards—supposedly objective ones—the legal system remains curiously vulnerable to the implicit biases and outright hostilities of its many actors. There are strikingly few checks against which its procedures can be measured for basic fairness. Shouldn’t any case, and the process through which it was conducted, be able to be evaluated against some measurement of basic fairness?

On Arthur Raper, one of your sources: What was the Southern Commission on Lynching?

This is from the introduction in Raper’s book, The Tragedy of Lynching:

With the marked increase of lynchings early in 1930, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation requested a number of men of both races to undertake a thorough study of the lynching phenomenon. Thus was created the Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching, which began its work in June 1930. This Commission was fortunate to secure, as its chief of research and investigation, Dr. Arthur F. Raper, of the staff of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. In our general field investigations and researches, Dr. Raper was ably assisted by Professor Walter R. Chivers, of the Sociology Department of Morehouse College, Atlanta, who also visited the scenes of each of 1930’s lynchings and secured valuable data...

For two years, Dr. Raper has worked upon the problems, patiently, unflaggingly, in scientific spirit. He and his associates dissected the social anatomy of each of 1930’s lynchings. Their observations and conclusions have been carefully debated, tested, and appraised by the members of the Commission. Two reports have already been published: Lynchings and What They Mean, an eighty-page pamphlet containing our general findings and recommendations, and The Mob Murder of S. S. Mincey, a twenty-five-page pamphlet presenting two of our case studies. In its first chapters, the present volume incorporates much of the data presented in our former publication; the remainder of the volume is devoted to case studies, two of which appeared in the smaller pamphlet.

The Commission feels that the presentation of these more detailed and embracing materials is warranted by the researches of Dr. Raper and his associates, and will afford students of social phenomena an opportunity to study the causation of these examples of group sadism and, finally, will be welcomed by the ever-increasing number of Southern men and women who abhor mob-murder and expectantly look forward to the day when it will be no more.

Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching.

What years did Mr. Raper serve as a member of the Southern Commission on Lynching?

To the best of my knowledge, the Commission existed from 1931-1933, when it published the findings of its work, and Mr. Raper served on the Commission for its entirety.

Was the Southern Commission on Lynching effective?

Yes, though the answer is complicated. The Commission was formed in response to the number of lynchings per year more than doubling in 1930 with the onset of the Great Depression (it nearly tripled for black victims). The Commission’s reports came out in 1933, the start of a three-year period during which there was another rise in the number of the lynchings. After that, once the Commission had completed its work and the NAACP utilized the Commission’s work in its on-going anti-lynching campaigns, the total number of lynchings reached single digits for only the second time in 1936 and it never again rose above single digits until lynchings virtually ended during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The seminal work of the Commission—Raper’s book, The Tragedy of Lynching—is one of the most highly regarded works on this subject area to this day.

What does “Beyond the reach of human law” mean in legalese?

I think you are referring to the quote from Judge Lawless. It was one of many ways of saying that black people did not have legal rights. In Lawless’ explanation, if a lynching was condoned by a sufficient number of white people (the “many”), then the official legal system would not intervene. He spoke these words decades prior to the Civil War, during a time in which the legal system treated black people as property rather than as people with inherent dignity and legal rights; nevertheless, even after the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1868, guaranteeing legal rights for all U.S. citizens, Lawless’ sentiment and others like it continued to be drawn upon in ways to subvert the plain words of the 14th Amendment and deny people their inherent legal rights, such as in the case of the lynching of George Hughes.

Please explain to readers who were born three generations after Jim Crow about the reality of life in the Jim Crow era by telling us what “how white someone was understood to be” means.

There is a nexus point at which white, male, and wealthy results in the greatest amount of legal rights, or greatest deference to a person’s legal rights, while an opposing nexus between factors such as person of color, low-income, and female or LGBTQ trends toward fewer rights and less deference to a person’s rights. The more factors that align for against someone in pretty much any era impacts the amount and deference given to their rights; however, before the ratification of the 14th Amendment, persons of color were not typically seen as having any rights at all, and during the Jim Crow era practices were adapted in such ways as to give the rights of white people (real or imagined) all possible deference while persons of color were able to be abused, subordinated, and discriminated against in any number of ways without accountability (murder, rape, theft, housing and employment discrimination, sexual harassment, etc.).

One of the ways this was manifested during the Jim Crow era was with creative definitions of what “white” meant. The fewer people encompassed by “white,” the more powerful were the people that it did encompass. Anyone with a skin-tone other than pink/white was certainly excluded. But so were people that otherwise looked white but had an ancestor of color. The legal significance of proximity of the connection varied by state/jurisdiction—such as only a parent counting in one state while a great-grandparent could count in another (“a drop of colored blood”). But the lines could also shift based on ethnicity or ancestral nationality. Italians, Irish, and Jews are also examples of groups that faced this kind of formerly legal discrimination.

Because of George Hughes’s murder in the era that this was riot was allowed to happen, and as you reported, it appears that the powers that be turned a blind eye, did you discover any other incidents of minor offenses committed by black people before the alleged assault that might have had the communities involved brewing trouble prior to the murder and riot?

No. I read every source I could get my hands on. None of them reported a precipitating event of this nature. The account from Raper was one of the most exhaustive and closest in time, and it benefited from his and his staff’s fact-finding investigation, site visits, and interviews. I am confident their report would have mentioned such a detail if one were a factor. Furthermore, the sources I encountered that sought to justify or explain away the lynching as not a big deal also did not report a detail of this nature.

Do you think the women present during the riot were brainwashed by their husbands about black men who were at-the-ready to commit crimes against white women?

No. White fear around miscegenation was widespread, in many parts of the country. The white population as a whole, despite the dissenters, was generally committed to this fear as a form of racism. I have not seen anything to indicate that husbands in particular were a uniquely driving force, even though it was men in general who had the greater motivation to fear competition from black men.

What role did white churches play in the aftermath of the 1930 riot?

According to Raper’s report in The Tragedy of Lynching, many of the pastors saw the mob in action, but no evidence was found that any made any effort to oppose it. Only 4-6 pastors of Sherman’s then 30 churches—most prominently First Baptist, First Methodist, Disciples, and First Presbyterian--are reported to have denounced the mob on the Sunday two days after the violence took place and less than a day after the declaration of martial law. In the smaller churches, some pastors who desired to speak out were threatened that if they said anything they would be sent packing. When the Ministers’ Alliance met, only four out of 11-13 attendees thought the ministers should make a statement. Only Dr. Wharton, the pastor emeritus of the Presbyterian Church initiated an effort to raise money to replace the property belonging to Sherman’s black community that had been burned by the mob, but the Ministers’ Alliance thought it was not safe to support this fund.

Coincidentally, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South’s (now part of the United Methodist Church) highest legislative body, the 1930 General Conference, was meeting in Dallas while this lynching and mob violence unfolded. They immediately adopted a resolution condemning mob violence.

Can you expand on the economy’s role in the 1930 riot?

The pressures of the Great Depression were a fundamental dynamic impacting what happened. At general societal level, when people feel like their livelihood is threatened, they look for channels in which to direct their anxieties, especially if that involves opportunities to gain at someone else’s expense. During the Jim Crow era, these kinds of pressures directly correlated to discrimination against persons of color.

In the broad region around Sherman, rural tenant farmers were getting crushed by the onset of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, there was a thriving black business community in Sherman. The white tenant farmers felt the black residents of Sherman were rising above their proper stations, and the tenant farmers channeled their anxieties and aggressions against that community under the excuse of the rape accusation.

Your research shows that “Lynchings tended to occur in places that were already wrestling with problems of crime and anxieties about moral decay”. Did your research reveal any of those two elements in Sherman and in the surrounding county and counties? If so, can you describe them?

Unfortunately, I do not have this level of detail of information about the surrounding region. Nevertheless, it is a common dynamic that when a region experiences severe economic pressures, people fight for the resources they need to survive and the typical norms of a society fray. When a person feels like it is their resources that are being taken, they often characterize the actions of the others along the lines of moral decay. This is common whether the setting is a rust belt town or an inner-city of today.

The economic pressures on areas surrounding Sherman in 1930 were described in the various reports I read, but specific crimes were not detailed.

Since McElroy’s grandfather heard a rumor about George Hughes and Mrs. Farlow, would that have been a sign of moral decay of the times?

First, I do not believe that interracial relationships are a sign of moral decay, regardless of in what time period one may have occurred. Second, if it’s the possibility of an affair that you are trying to refer to, I’ve never seen any indication that affairs were happening more in this period, in a statistically meaningful way, than in other periods. If they indeed had any kind of affair—and to be clear, I have not seen anything to support any particular version of events, including this one—what I think would be most interesting about it is that if the parties were swapped out, and Mr. Farlowe had some kind of sexual interaction with a black employee, nothing like what happened to Hughes would have unfolded. A white man having a sexual interaction with a subordinate black woman, even one who was married, would almost certainly have been accepted—possibly outright affirmed, but if not, then at least tacitly. But a black man having a sexual interaction with a white woman who was supposed to be above him was seen as the vilest of crimes, and the man was lynched, his body was desecrated, the courthouse was burned down, and the black business district was burned down over it.

You described the KKK as senile? What did you mean by senile? Did you find much evidence of KKK involvement?

The Confederate Monument that still stands on the grounds of the courthouse was in part a contribution of the KKK. While the Confederate Association of Grayson County took the lead in getting the monument established, one of the leaders of the KKK (I don’t have the book anymore, so I can’t verify which one and what title he had, how high up he was) gave the keynote address when the monument was unveiled in 1892.

By the late 1920’s, the KKK in this area was described as less active, less organized, and barely operational. The rape accusation against George Hughes presented an opportunity to whip up support, as Slim Jones worked to do. The KKK is not a strong record-keeping organization with official documents and interviews made publicly available after the fact, so I can’t speak with authority about their involvement, but the members of the Southern Commission on Lynching and others who did this kind of research more contemporaneously than I have believed that Slim Jones and others actors within the mob were connected with the Klan.

In your opinion, would the jury have found Hugh’s guilty and sentenced him to death if the trial had been allowed to proceed?

Absolutely! Even if the trial hadn’t been interrupted, there was a mob of thousands of people outside the courthouse. In places all around the south (and sometimes other parts of the country) the combination of rampant racism and the mere presence of mobs was effective in intimidating court participants and ensuring a definitive conviction. The Sherman mob, like other mobs, never cared about truth or the facts. Hughes was painted guilty regardless of the facts of what actually happened on the farm. “Truth” was what white people said it was. Once the rape accusation had been made, it was essentially forgone that Hughes was going to end up dead. The only question was how. The mob decided it would be by them, in some of the most violent, graphic, destructive ways possible.

Link to Kevin's Paper


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Kendall Davis is well-versed in the English language. She has 20 years experience as a published author and writing for clients. Her published works include historical articles in museums, magazines, newspaper articles, columns, content marketing, advertising copy, blogging, and academic papers. Kendall also makes her way in the literary world as a copyeditor. Writing about history is her first love interest. If you have editing or content needs on your website or for your books, articles, blogs, or columns, please visit her website to see details and more examples of her work, the services she offers, and contact information.

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