The Sherman riot of 1930 was one of the major incidents of racial violence that occurred in the United States at the onset of the Great Depression, when lynching and other lawless acts increased with economic problems. The incident initiated a flurry of racial violence in Texas. White tenant farmers had exhibited hostility to Blacks throughout the county. As county seat, Sherman was the county's banking, industrial, and educational center. The Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching reported in 1931 that Sherman had felt the onset of the depression more keenly than representative communities of similar size in Texas. The prevalent abhorrence of miscegenation, together with the sensation surrounding the rape of a White woman by a Black man, provided the context of the violence. A Black farm hand named George Hughes, described by acquaintances as "crazy," was accused of raping a young woman, who was never publicly identified. Hughes admitted that he had come to the farm five miles southeast of Sherman on May 3, 1930, in search of the woman's husband, who owed him wages. Hughes left when the woman said that her husband was in Sherman but soon returned with a shotgun, demanded his wages, and raped the woman. He shot at unarmed pursuers and at the patrol car of the deputy sheriff who later arrived to investigate the disturbance. He then surrendered. On Monday, May 5, Hughes was indicted for criminal assault by a special meeting of the grand jury in the Fifteenth District Court. County attorney Joe P. Cox set the trial date for Friday, May 9, and promised a speedy trial. In the days preceding the trial, rumors spread about the case, among them that Hughes had mutilated the woman's throat and breasts and that she was not expected to live. Medical examination of the woman and of Hughes showed the rumors to be false. Officers removed Hughes from the jail to an undisclosed location as a precaution against mob violence, but rumors persisted that he was still there. A few people were taken through the jail to show that he was not there, but an unconvinced mob gathered outside nightly.
In the early morning of Friday, May 9, Capt. Francis A. (Frank) Hamer of the Texas Rangers, assisted by two other rangers and one police sergeant, escorted Hughes to the county courthouse. County Sheriff Arthur Vaughan and deputies stood on duty in the courtroom and corridors. Only those connected to the case were allowed to attend the proceedings. Nevertheless, a crowd from all over the region gathered outside the building and filled the corridors from the main entrance to the courtroom doors. During the jury selection and beginning of the trial, the noise led officers to clear the stairway and corridor leading to the courtroom. In the late morning the crowd began to stone the courthouse. An American flag was carried around the grounds to incite the men to action. The jury was sworn in at noon. Then Cox read the indictment, to which Hughes pleaded guilty. The first witness had begun testimony when the crowd forced the doors to the courtroom corridor, whereupon the rangers fired three warning shots. The jury was sent from the room, and Hughes was taken to the district court vault as the rangers used tear gas to disperse the mob. Firemen provided ladders for others in the trial room. A few minutes before one o'clock the mob started toward the courtroom again, and again the rangers resorted to tear gas. Firemen again helped women and children escape the building with the use of ladders. District Judge R. M. Carter went into conference at about one o'clock and declared that he would likely order a change of venue, but at two o'clock he had not decided where to send the case. Captain Hamer told him that he did not believe that the trial could be held in Sherman without bloodshed.
About 2:30 P.M., two youths threw an open can of gasoline into the county tax collector's office through a broken window. A fire started and quickly spread through the building. The officials escaped on ladders. It was said that when the deputies guarding Hughes offered to escort him out, he chose to remain locked in the vault. Rangers attempted to rescue him but were cut off by flames. The mob held the firemen back and cut their hoses. By 4:00 only the walls of the building and the fireproof vault remained. Mob members tried to tear down the walls of the vault. They also drove a small detachment of militia from the courthouse grounds to the county jail. At about 6:30 they engaged in a pitched battle with national guardsmen sent by Governor Dan Moody at the request of Sherman officials. Perhaps emboldened by a rumor that Moody had ordered Hamer not to shoot anyone, the mob forced the guardsmen to retreat to the county jail. Some guardsmen were injured by projectiles, and some members of the crowd were wounded by gunshots. With dynamite and acetylene torches, the leaders of the mob worked on the vault until they opened it just before midnight. More than 5,000 people filled the courthouse yard and lined an adjacent street. The militia had left. Hughes's body was thrown from the vault, then dragged behind a car to the front of a drugstore in the Black business section, where it was hanged from a tree. The store furnishings were used to fuel a fire under the hanging corpse. The mob also burned down the drugstore and other businesses in the area and prevented firemen from saving the burning buildings. By daybreak of May 10, most of the town's Black businesses, as well as a residence, lay in ashes. Among the businesses burned were the offices of a dentist, a doctor, and a civil rights lawyer, William J. Durham. After the mob subsided, a detachment of militia went to the area and cut down Hughes's charred body. The owners of two Black undertaking establishments that had been destroyed were offered Hughes's remains, but because they no longer had operable places of business, the remains were turned over to a white undertaker. Hughes's remains were buried on the morning of May 10 near the Grayson county farm.
At 4:30 A.M. on May 10, Governor Moody announced that he would not declare martial law in Sherman unless the Texas National Guard and local officers were unable to quell the disturbances. The same morning 225 additional guardsmen from Dallas and Fort Worth, under the direction of Col. Laurence E. McGee, arrived. Two additional rangers also came to supplement the four already present. Officials arrested eleven men and released six by evening. At the unanimous request of a group of fifty community leaders, however, Governor Moody declared martial law at 10:30 P.M. on May 10. Suspects were rounded up. Martial law officials formed a military court of inquiry with the power to present information to a grand jury in cases considered worthy of further investigation. Under martial law, soldiers were ordered to shoot anyone attempting to set fires or otherwise damage property owned by Blacks in Sherman. Investigators searched for the individuals responsible for posting threatening placards in the Black section of Sherman and later arrested a number of high school boys for questioning. Investigators also sought the parties responsible for threats against the property of White contractors who employed Black workers.
By the evening of May 13, thirty-eight men and one woman had been arrested. The next day justice of the peace W. M. Blaylock charged eight men with inciting to riot and one with posting threatening placards. He dismissed three of the charges the same day. The number of national guardsmen in Sherman declined, though troops stationed at the school for Blacks continued guarding the building. The school, which had been closed for several days, was reopened on May 14. On May 19 the military court of inquiry gave its evidence to the Fifteenth District grand jury. On May 20 the grand jury returned seventy indictments against fourteen men in connection with the riot. Lynching was not named in the charges. On May 22 Judge Carter changed the venue to Criminal District Court No. 2 in Dallas. Thirteen of the suspects were sent to Dallas on May 23, and one was released on bond. Of the fourteen men indicted for the violence at Sherman only two had been convicted by October 1931, one for rioting and the other for arson. Both received two-year sentences. On May 24 Governor Moody lifted martial law. Maj. Dupont B. Lyon succeeded Col. McGee as head of the peace patrols. During the first few days of martial law 430 national guardsmen and nine Texas Rangers had been in Sherman; fifty were there on May 23. The Sherman Daily Democrat lamented the lawlessness, property damage, and notoriety that the incident had caused but expressly did not lament Hughes's death. Soon afterward, lynchings followed at Honey Grove, at Benchly in Brazos County, and at Chickasha, Oklahoma. Several more lynching attempts—one, in Brownwood, against a white man—were thwarted.