Guest contributor: Felix Harcourt
Note: Austin College (Sherman, TX) is a Regional Collaboration Partner in the Legacies of American Slavery network.
The Ghanaian concept of sankofa—loosely translated to mean looking back in order to move forward—has been a recurrent theme in the work that faculty, staff, and students at Austin College have taken on in recent years to help our community wrestle with our local history of racial violence and resistance. Our campus sits in north Texas, in the city of Sherman, site of a 1930 riot that began with the lynching of a black farm laborer, George Hughes, and ended with the destruction of the city’s thriving black business district. Our recent efforts are not the first time that those in this area have tried to tell this story, but that history has long been denied, mangled, or actively hidden.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we witnessed new community efforts to reckon honestly with these past injustices and an insistence on continuing the decades-long tradition of entrenched resistance to facing that historical truth. To this day, there are those in the area who refuse to call the murder of Hughes a lynching, clinging to the tendentious argument that he was killed by fire rather than by hanging. Too many are made too uncomfortable by the idea that the violent legacies of American slavery hang over their own personal histories. We need look no further than the efforts to restrict what students in Texas public schools can learn and understand to know what power such feelings still hold.
In the last two years, though, there have been real signs of change. After a long and bruising foray into local politics, a community effort to have a marker erected on the county courthouse lawn recognizing the events of 1930 has been approved by the Texas State Historical Commission. As our community has begun to face some of the darkest parts of its history, we have also begun to see again some of the brightest stories of hope and resistance. A walking tour of black history in the city—a Sankofa Journey—has drawn crowds large enough to require a police escort. Efforts are underway to publicly commemorate and celebrate the vibrancy and success of the historic black business district. And planned historical markers include not only the story of George Hughes but also the story of William J. Durham, the local pioneering civil rights attorney who argued landmark desegregation and voting rights cases.
While the struggle to bring the whole of these histories to light is ongoing, we at Austin College have been able to forge new relationships with educators across the state and region. We are trying to model and encourage similar struggles with local history in the collaborative effort to see an enduring change in public understanding of such legacies.
Felix Harcourt is an assistant professor of history at Austin College and the lead faculty member on Austin’s Legacies of American Slavery project team. His research and teaching focus on the history of prejudice, politics, and popular culture in the modern United States, especially the 1920s and New Deal era. He is the author of Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s (University of Chicago Press, 2017). The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Austin College or the Council of Independent Colleges.