The statue of a Texas Ranger rises 12 majestic feet atop a granite pedestal in the main lobby at Dallas Love Field. The Ranger wears a Western hat, of course, and his pants have been tucked into his cowboy boots. Two pistols repose in twin holsters. The Ranger extends one hand as if to calm any fears, while the other is poised for a quick draw should a pre-flight fracas erupt at the Dunkin’ Donuts on the mezzanine.
Last year the city entertained a proposal to replace the sculpture with one of Dallas civil rights lawyer Adelfa Callejo. As often happened with his flesh-and-blood counterparts, the bronze Ranger prevailed. Callejo’s statue was sent to a downtown park, while the towering Texas lawman kept his spot. There the Ranger continues to serve as an official greeter of sorts, an iconic and eye-catching welcome to Big D. However, for a city that markets itself as dynamic, cosmopolitan, and diverse, he poses some unseemly symbolic problems. The backstory of the Love Field Ranger is one of fire, blood, intolerance, and injustice.
Rangers have patrolled Texas for almost 200 years, and many of them performed countless acts of bravery and heroism. They chased outlaws, corralled rustlers, and helped defeat the fierce Comanches. It could be argued that Texas as we know it would not exist without them. But the Rangers also committed some terrifying atrocities, including massacres on the Texas-Mexico border. “Twenty-five or 30 years ago, they were a fine body of men,” a New York journalist wrote in 1916 from the Rio Grande Valley. “But in recent years the Rangers have degenerated into common man-killers.”
More than a century later, when a Ranger statue vanquished that of a Latina crusader, those old ghosts came calling. “For some Mexican-Americans,” the Dallas Morning News noted in a November story on the Callejo sculpture, “the Rangers were a reviled force that unjustly hunted, killed and lynched those of Mexican ancestry.”
Then there is the form and face of the statue itself. This dates to 1956, when the NAACP, backed with a court order, attempted to integrate the high school in Mansfield, about 30 miles southwest of Dallas. White residents erupted in fury, so Gov. Allan Shivers dispatched the Rangers. But unlike state police in other Southern racial hotspots, the Rangers in Mansfield did not escort black students past howling mobs of white supremacists. They had been sent instead to keep the black children out of a white school.
The commanding Ranger on the scene was Sgt. E.J. “Jay” Banks. A wire service photo showed him casually leaning against a tree outside Mansfield High. To his left, above the school’s entrance, was a dummy in blackface, hanging from a noose. Nearby a white mob had assembled. Some carried signs that threatened death for anyone attempting to integrate the school. Banks saw no need to remove the effigy or disperse the mob. “They were just ‘salt of the earth’ citizens,” he later wrote. “They were concerned because they were convinced that someone was trying to interfere with their way of life.” Blacks were so intimidated that none attempted to enroll at Mansfield.
Several days later, Gov. Shivers ordered Banks and a few other Rangers to Northeast Texas, because African-Americans wished to take classes at all-white Texarkana Junior College, a public institution. Again the Rangers’ job was to stop black students from enrolling.
As at Mansfield, a mob of white men gathered outside the school. An 18-year-old woman and a 17-year-old boy, both black, arrived by cab and began to walk toward the college. The mob blocked their path. Some surrounded the 17-year-old and kicked him, while others threw gravel. The Rangers watched it happen and did nothing except threaten to arrest the two students.
“I’ve never seen a meaner mob in my life,” a photographer for Life magazine said. Some of his photos showed Banks standing among the white protesters, one of whom is holding a sign that reads, “NIGGERS STAY OUT!!” When the mob would not cease its harassment, the two would-be students retreated. The local White Citizens Council was so happy with the Rangers’ actions they treated Banks to a chicken dinner.
The photos of Banks from Mansfield and Texarkana circulated worldwide. It should be noted that he had been following the governor’s orders. Nonetheless, Banks became for a while the face of uniformed, armed, and officially sanctioned white resistance to court-ordered civil rights. Soon he would gain some additional notice—and perhaps immortality. In 1959, San Antonio sculptor Waldine Tauch received a commission to sculpt the Love Field Ranger monument. She picked a real Ranger to model for it, and the bronze likeness is striking in its evocation of the man himself. The model was none other than Jay Banks.
At least no one died in the protests at Mansfield and Texarkana. The same cannot be said for an incident that relates to the legend engraved on the statue’s base: “ONE RIOT—ONE RANGER.”
This declaration has long served as an unofficial slogan of the Rangers. According to numerous accounts, it was born decades ago when a single lawman showed up to quell a disturbance. An incredulous local asked why he was alone, and the Ranger responded, “You only have one riot, don’t you?”
Most historians now agree that no Ranger ever seriously uttered such a thing. Yet it has endured as a pithy expression of the agency’s ethos, conveying a necessary, defiant confidence. Frequently outnumbered by the opposition, the Rangers had to employ individual strength, guile, courage, and integrity to win the day. In that realm, the words become the distillation of a Ranger ideal.
The one-riot-one-Ranger idea also dovetails with the Rangers’ long history of self-aggrandizing propaganda. For much of their existence, the Rangers and their accomplices have operated a fable factory through which many of their greatest defeats, biggest embarrassments, and bleakest moments were recast as grand triumphs.
Ninety years ago, one of the worst riots in the state’s history took place not too far from where the statue now stands. One Ranger was not nearly enough.
In many ways, the racial climate in Texas during the first third of the 20th century mirrored that of the Deep South. Jim Crow segregation reigned. Members of the Ku Klux Klan exercised political power by day and spread terror by night. A black man accused of a serious crime against a white person often met death at the hands of vigilantes, though in some cases the accusations need not involve criminal activity. In the Collin County town of Farmersville, a black man was hanged after a white telephone operator said he had spoken rudely to her.
There were more than 450 lynchings in Texas between 1885 and 1930, and nearly three-fourths of the victims were black. These actions provoked, on the whole, little in the way of community outrage or shame. White citizens in many cases treated them as public entertainments—spontaneous and gruesome versions of the county fair. Vendors circulated through the mobs with refreshments. Photographs of corpses hanging from nooses were sold and mailed as picture postcards. In the six decades from the end of Reconstruction through the Great Depression, Texas trailed only Mississippi and Georgia in the number of lynchings.
The Texas Legislature passed an anti-lynching law in 1897. But prosecutions of lynch-mob leaders were uncommon and convictions virtually non-existent. Though they were the only statewide law enforcement agency, the Rangers did not frequently prevent or investigate lynchings during this period. They—and the politicians who directed them—had other concerns, such as catching bootleggers, stopping illegal prizefights, and patrolling the Mexican border.
There were exceptions. In 1919 the Rangers protected a black man on trial in Hillsboro, south of Dallas. After Bragg Williams was sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman and her child, the local district attorney told the Rangers they were no longer needed. They departed for Austin. Then a mob pulled the man from the county jail and burned him at the stake. Dozens of women and children were among those watching, a Dallas newspaper reporter observed. “The crowd was orderly and there was little excitement.”
The number of lynchings in Texas began to taper off through the 1920s. The state recorded 10 in 1929, the fewest annual total since Reconstruction, which gave hope to some that the darkest days had passed. Then a black man was accused of assaulting a white woman 65 miles north of Dallas.
Named for a hero of the Texas revolution, the city of Sherman was a farm and railroad center on the rolling prairie south of the Red River. About 15,000 people lived there. It was the seat of Grayson County and liked to call itself the “Athens of Texas” because it had three small colleges and a city library.
The city faced the usual array of racial problems endemic to the time and place. Klan meetings in the area sometimes drew as many as 4,000 participants. However, Sherman also boasted a small but thriving black merchant and professional class. Whites and blacks lived separately but, in general, peacefully.
All that changed on a spring day in 1930 when a 41-year-old farm worker named George Hughes was arrested. The news of it flashed through town as the Sherman newspaper ran a banner headline on the front page: “NEGRO HELD FOR ASSAULT NEAR LUELLA.” The victim, as the newspaper informed, was a white woman.
Hughes had gone to his employer’s house, 5 miles east of Sherman, seeking his pay. The man wasn’t home, but his wife was. She later said Hughes bound her wrists with electrical cord and sexually assaulted her. When deputies tried to arrest him, Hughes fired a shotgun in their direction. They eventually disarmed and jailed him. Authorities said he confessed to the crime.
On a Monday, two days after his arrest, Hughes was indicted for assault and attempted murder. The trial was set for the following Friday, May 9—the earliest possible date under Texas law. It had all the hallmarks of an open-and-shut case. Few doubted that Hughes would be convicted and sent to prison.
But the community was growing restive. Local officials asked for help, and Gov. Dan Moody responded. On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 7, Capt. Frank Hamer and three other Rangers left Austin on a train for Sherman.
Hamer, 46, was perhaps the best-known Ranger in Texas at that point. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, he towered over most mortals and carried himself like a cowboy out of a pulp Western. “A giant of a man,” one newspaper reporter wrote. A “fearless man-hunter,” said another. Hamer had experience in mob control. In 1922 he and four other Rangers rushed from Austin to Waco to confront vigilantes who threatened to pull black murder suspects from the county jail. Hamer stood on the courthouse steps with a Thompson submachine gun, and the mob dispersed.
And now he had come to Sherman, where trial day brought big crowds. The two-lane farm roads leading to town were bumper to bumper with old Model T Fords. Hundreds of people, many of them men in faded bib overalls and sweat-stained hats, gathered outside the courthouse.
As in other county seats, the Sherman courthouse had been built on a square block at the center of town. Four streets named for the greatest heroes of early Texas, including Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, defined the square. A small lawn, with oak and pecan trees, surrounded the two-story stone building. Early that morning, in the mild spring sunshine, two Rangers and the sheriff walked Hughes, his hands and feet in chains, the two blocks from the jail to the courthouse. The Rangers carried shotguns.
Court convened at 9:30 am, and by noon a jury had been chosen. Men and women pressed into the hallways and stairwells leading to the second-floor courtroom. The mood of the crowd loomed angry and tense. Yet officials were not overly worried, for—as United Press put it—“the negro was guarded by the redoubtable Captain Frank Hamer, the two-fisted, two-gun Texas Ranger who is known as the official ‘mob buster’ of the state.”
The first of the prosecution witnesses took the stand about 12:30 p.m. The crowd outside the courthouse stayed calm until an ambulance rolled up. The ambulance’s back doors swung, and the woman who had accused Hughes of assaulting her was brought out, lying on a stretcher. The sight of her excited the spectators, and some hurled rocks at the courthouse windows. A few women onlookers began to taunt men in the vicinity, accusing them of cowardice.
The mass of people surged forward. “It was while the first State witness was on the stand testifying,” Hamer later wrote, “that the crowd made a rush on the District Court room to get the prisoner.” They broke down a set of double doors leading to a hallway outside the courtroom.
The judge recessed the court. Hughes was taken to a steel and concrete walk-in vault on the second floor, used for storing county records, and locked inside for his protection. The mob, one reporter wrote, “was clamoring for the negro.” The Rangers hurled tear gas canisters. Gas filled the stairwell, and the agitators, as Hamer called them, retreated. “The crowd made two other attempts to rush the courtroom,” Hamer said, “and was beaten back each time.”
Hamer told his men that if the mob assailed the courtroom again, he would fire on them. “In a few minutes the mob attempted to rush the courtroom again, coming up the stairways,” Hamer said, “and I fired a shotgun loaded with buckshot, wounding two men. … [T]his stopped the mob.”
Now a rumor swept the crowd that Gov. Moody had instructed the Rangers not to harm anyone further. That proved to be untrue, but the report emboldened the mob. One of the men walked to the foot of the stairway and demanded that the Rangers give up the prisoner. Hamer refused. “Well, we are coming up and get him,” the man said. Hamer replied: “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 about half an hour, the crowd turned quiet. Hamer was confident the budding riot had been contained. “[W]hen I fired on the crowd in their last attempt to rush the courtroom,” he later wrote, “we had them whipped off and they could not have taken the prisoner from us in any way.”
Unless they burned the place down.
It was about 2:30 in the afternoon that a woman threw a rock through the window of the tax collector’s office on the first floor, breaking the glass. Two young men hoisted a 5-gallon can and poured gasoline into the office. Someone tossed in a lighted match, and there was a flash of flame. A cheer went up.
The fire department arrived within minutes, but vandals rendered them instantly useless. “One large man,” a reporter observed, “walked around with a long-bladed knife in his hand and cut hose after hose.” The firemen watched helplessly as the courthouse burned.
The blaze raged across the first floor. “[T]hen all at once,” Hamer said, “the flames from the lower story of the courthouse swept up the stairways and on up to the ceilings.” The judge and court clerks escaped from second-floor windows via fire department ladders. The Rangers followed them down, having “barely escaped the burning building,” Hamer said.
Only one person was left in the courthouse now: Hughes, who remained locked in the vault. Nearly the entire building was in flames. The heat drove the crowd on the courthouse lawn backward, but seemed only to increase its fervor. Hamer and his men faced a mass of rage. Civil order had collapsed.
It was one riot, four Rangers.
“We stood around a few minutes,” Hamer said. Then—to the bafflement of some onlookers and the delight of others—Hamer and the other Rangers got into a borrowed car and drove away. “[B]idding goodbye to the mob,” one newspaper reported, they “left the city, going toward Dallas.”
Hamer later explained the Rangers departed Sherman because he needed to speak with Gov. Moody. “I thought it necessary for me to communicate with you, as I heard the troops were on their way,” Hamer wrote in a letter to the governor. “Not caring to discuss this with you from Sherman, we were talking to a man and I asked him if he had a car.”
The man with the car drove the Rangers to the small farming town of Howe, about 10 miles south of Sherman. There, Hamer phoned the governor’s office. But while waiting for the connection, he said, “I heard the operator say to someone over the phone, ‘I am glad they burned the courthouse.’ ”
Hamer decided he and the governor should not talk with this particular operator listening in. The Rangers went for another drive, this time to McKinney, an additional 20 miles south. That is where, Hamer said, they “waited for further communication.”
As Hamer and his crew stood down, Gov. Moody was scrambling to find other Rangers. He finally located Sgt. Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas in Dallas. The governor ordered Gonzaullas to drive to Sherman and keep the rioters from seizing any other prisoners now held in the county jail. By Gonzaullas’ account, he set up a one-man guard post outside the jail, wearing a white hat while armed with two pistols, a sawed-off shotgun, and a Thompson submachine gun. When some of the mob approached him, he said, he fired buckshot over their heads. Soon, several more Rangers arrived to help.
The governor also dispatched units of the Texas National Guard, who arrived in Sherman by late afternoon. They marched through the downtown streets with fixed bayonets. Young boys followed the guardsmen, tripping them. Some in the crowd threw rocks and bottles. Several of the guardsmen were seriously hurt.
After sundown, the situation seemed to calm. But another rumor took hold, that Hughes had escaped, or the guardsmen had rescued him. Around midnight, more than 1,000 people crowded onto the town square. The courthouse fire had finally burned itself out. The building stood as a deserted, smoking ruin.
Some of the mob climbed the charred stairs to the vault that had held Hughes. The steel door to it was locked. A man carried in an acetylene torch and used it to cut away part of the outer shell of the vault. A stick of dynamite, placed there and detonated, blew a hole into the chamber.
Two blocks away, Rangers still guarded the county jail. None of them went to the courthouse in response to the explosions.
When the smoke from the blast cleared, someone with a flashlight crawled into the vault and shouted, “Here he is.” They found Hughes unconscious, probably dead. He may have suffocated. He also had suffered a massive head wound, most likely from the explosion’s shrapnel.
Men dragged his body to a second-floor window and pushed it out. It rolled down a ladder and hit the ground with a thud, near the county’s soaring Confederate monument. “[W]omen screamed and clapped their hands,” the Associated Press reported, “and a great cheer went up from the mob.”
Hughes’ body was chained to a car. Local police directed traffic while the mob marched along with the body as it bumped over rough pavement at the end of the chain. The car dragged Hughes several blocks down Crockett Street to the black section of town. “There were two pregnant ladies, so big you’d have thought they were about to have those babies right then,” a witness said. “They were right behind where they were dragging him. They were hopping up and down and squealing and laughing. The whole street was full of people.”
The body was strung from a cottonwood tree. Some from the crowd piled boxes beneath the body and started a bonfire that roasted Hughes’ body. “A brilliant Texas moon,” the Associated Press said, “added its rays to the gruesome sight.”
Mulberry Street, where this scene occurred, was the center of black commerce in Sherman. It had a movie house, a funeral home, a barbershop, a drugstore, and a hotel. A dressmaker’s shop was next to a tailor’s. A grocery store stood near a doctor’s office and a restaurant. Now, white men with axes and guns broke into them and looted them, and most were set on fire. The mob destroyed or heavily damaged them all.
Once the crowd had tired of lynching and pillaging and had gone home, guardsmen cut Hughes’ body from its chain. The black funeral homes had been destroyed, so a white undertaker was persuaded to take the body. It was placed in a cheap wood coffin and buried in an unmarked grave at the county farm.
By late Saturday the town was quiet. Nearly all the black people who lived and worked there had fled. Some hid in thickets, some in sewers, while others found refuge in darkened hog pens. Sympathetic whites gave shelter to a number of them. Those families who owned cars were able to escape the county.
Now their neighborhood was silent. “There was not a Negro in sight Saturday,” a Dallas newspaperman wrote. “They have gone from Sherman.”
By Sunday, Hamer and his original company of Rangers were themselves back in town. Some officials wondered aloud if they had done all they could have to prevent the riot. “I asked Adjutant General Robertson why he had not sent more men, as these situations are always full of dynamite,” Ranger Capt. W.W. Sterling said. “He replied, ‘They only asked for four.’ ”
Hamer placed the blame on three factors: the number of women and children in the crowd, which made enforcement difficult; the false rumor that the governor had ordered that no rioter be harmed; and the fire itself. “[W]e never dreamed of the gang doing that until the building was enveloped in flames,” he wrote.
The Rangers began jailing men who had led the riot. Ultimately, 43 people were arrested and 14 indicted. Gov. Moody vowed that “every power of the state” would be employed to “punish the persons responsible.” But only one of them, J.B. “Screw” McCasland, was convicted. He got two years in prison for arson and 180 days for a separate charge of chicken theft. None of the others even came to trial.
Hamer spent a few more years as a Ranger, then left the force upon the election of Miriam “Ma” Ferguson as governor. In 1934, he signed on as a “special escape investigator” for the Texas prison system. His assignment: stop Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the notorious bank-robbing duo. Hamer led the ambush that killed them in Arcadia, Louisiana, which gained him international fame.
About the same time, the Sherman riot was receiving a historical whitewash. Walter Prescott Webb’s massive 1935 history of the Rangers, for example, devoted a 29-page chapter to Hamer, but made no mention of Sherman. A 1935 San Antonio Light story claimed Hamer and his Rangers “held a mob of 5,000 at bay nearly all day” at Sherman. In his 1934 book on the Rangers, The Gentlemen in the White Hats, C.L. Douglas wrote of Hamer at Sherman: “He stood on the steps of the courthouse and defied a mob of howling citizens who threatened to enter and take a negro prisoner. … The mob didn’t try.” More than two decades later, an Associated Press story repeated that version of events almost word for word.
When Hamer died, in 1955, of a heart attack at the age of 71, newspapers from coast to coast published his obituary. Most described Hamer as the Ranger captain who had killed Bonnie and Clyde—though he had not been a Ranger at the time—and few recalled Sherman. In 2003 the Texas Ranger Dispatch, the publication of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, said Hamer “is the man that many believe to be the greatest Texas Ranger of the first half of the 20th century.” He was named a member of the Hall of Fame. His display in the Rangers museum in Waco highlights Bonnie and Clyde but says nothing of Sherman.
Today’s visitors to the museum can find his biography, I’m Frank Hamer, on sale in the gift shop. It proclaims Hamer the “greatest Texas Ranger of all time.” The chapter on the Sherman riot omits the part about Hamer and the Rangers leaving town as the riot raged.
Museum visitors can purchase other commemorative items as well, including a special kitchen cutting board. This could be the perfect accessory, a museum catalog suggests, for a chef using the Authorized Texas Ranger Cookbook.
Echoing the Love Field statue, four words are etched prominently into the cutting board’s surface: ONE RIOT, ONE RANGER.
From Cult of Glory, by Doug J. Swanson, to be published on June 9, 2020, by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Doug J. Swanson.