Rockwall Herald-Banner (Texas)

July 28, 2006

Forged in fire – The W.J. Durham story

John Browning

July 28, 2006 — The young African-American man stood across the street, stoically watching as flames engulfed the professional building where his fledgling law practice had been located. It seemed that all of Sherman was lit up by flames on that May night in 1930, but the young lawyer knew the truth.

A mob of men, incensed over the alleged rape of a white farmer’s wife, had seized George Hughes, the African-American man accused of the crime, from the courthouse after setting it on fire. After dragging the accused man behind a car, they lynched him from a tree in front of a drugstore in the African-American business district, but even this brutality had failed to satiate the crowd’s bloodlust.

While torching Hughes’ corpse, the lynch mob, which had swelled to over 5,000 people, set the drugstore on fire, and burned down the rest of the black business district: doctors’ offices, funeral homes, a hotel, movie house, and other businesses including the office of the only black lawyer in town.

Black residences were burned as well, and mob members posted crudely written placards warning African-American not to return to Sherman. Martial law was declared by Governor Dan Moody, and 430 National Guardsmen, as well as nine Texas Rangers were ultimately deployed in an effort to keep the violence from spreading further. The young lawyer watched the flaming building as the light danced over the glass-strewn sidewalks and the moon cast grotesque shadows on the charred dangling corpse. He wondered if the journey he had begun as a struggling lawyer had come to a crashing halt. In reality, his journey was just beginning.

That young African-American lawyer was William J. Durham. Born to sharecroppers on a farm near Sulphur Springs in 1896, the determined young man left the fields for college in Kansas. After serving in the United States Army in France during World War I, he returned to Texas where he "read the law" in the Sherman office of white attorney Ben Gafford. He passed the Texas Bar examination in 1926, and began to establish himself in Sherman as a member of the city’s growing black professional class. Sherman was then a college town, proud of its reputation as "the Athens of Texas," and not known for racial violence.

Durham joined doctors, teachers, a dentist, a pharmacist, and other African-American professionals and business owners as members of the Colored Civic League and the Progressive Commercial Club. He became a property owner, and by 1930 Durham was one of only 20 African-American lawyers in all of Texas.

In the wake of the courthouse riot, Sherman’s African-American business and professional population disappeared virtually overnight, a diaspora felt by Grayson County to this very day. The May 9, 1930 Sherman riot may have interrupted W.J. Durham’s journey toward middle-class comfort and obscurity, but it inadvertently started that young lawyer down a path that would transform the civil rights movement. Having experienced firsthand the evils of racial violence, Durham moved to Dallas. He pursued a legal practice that encompassed everything from representing African-American plaintiffs cheated by insurance companies, to defending African-American criminal defendants, to litigating civil rights cases.

At a time when the handful of African-American attorneys routinely endured disrespect from judges who referred to them as "boy" or by their first name, Durham steadily honed a reputation as a scholarly, unfailingly polite, and tactically shrewd courtroom lawyer, fond of lacing his legal arguments with scriptural quotations. He became the National Association of Advancement of Colored People’s "go-to" lawyer in Texas, handling more than 40 civil rights cases by 1950.

From time to time, because of the Dallas District Attorney’s office’s laissez faire attitude toward black-on-black crime, Durham even served as a special prosecutor for so-called "misdemeanor murders." Paid by the family of a black victim, Durham would prosecute the black defendant with the district attorney’s blessing.

The young man whose office was reduced to ashes by a lynch mob rose like a phoenix to argue landmark civil rights cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1944, Durham and his better known co-counsel Thurgood Marshall won Smith v. Allright, a voting rights case in which the Court ruled that African-Americans (who had previously been excluded from participating in primaries) had as much right to participate in the primary elections of political parties as in general elections.

Given the political stranglehold enjoyed in the South by the Democratic Party, exclusion of African-American voters from primaries was tantamount to carving them out of the process altogether.

In 1950, Durham and his co-counsel Marshall once again triumphed in Sweatt v. Painter. In a decision that paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education, Durham and Marshall demonstrated that separate was not equal as they convinced the Supreme Court that the University of Texas Law School’s segregation policy violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Durham, who had earlier represented postal carrier Heman Sweatt at the trial court level after he had been refused admission to U.T. Law School because of his race, pointed out that even if a separate, blacks-only law schools were equal in the brick and mortar sense, it couldn’t possibly be equivalent to U.T. Law School in terms of intangible factors, such as library quality or faculty reputation.

With the flames of Sherman indelibly seared into his memory, Durham continued to fight for civil rights at every turn. He fought for voting rights, salary equalization for black teachers and school integration. When the NAACP itself was targeted by the Texas attorney general in 1956 and threatened with an injunction that would have shut the organization down in Texas, it was Durham who successfully defended it, and under difficult conditions.

Because there were no colored hotel accommodations in Tyler, where the injunction hearing occurred, Durham drove the 100 miles to Tyler every morning and returned to Dallas each night. For 17 days, Durham faced hostile white crowds who actually brought Confederate flags into the courtroom; for the first and only time in his career, Durham carried a gun for protection. Durham also helped integrate the State Fair of Texas (until then, African-American were allowed admission on only one day of the year), organized the Texas Council of Voters, served on the national board of the NAACP, and in the late 1950’s, became the first African-American to sit on the Democratic Party’s state executive committee.

Despite this rich legacy, Durham has been largely overlooked by history, even in Dallas. Walk through downtown Dallas, and you will see buildings named after African-American contemporaries of Durham’s, people like George Allen and A. Maceo Smith; no such monument stands in honor of Durham.

In 1968, when the recently integrated Dallas Bar Association extended to Durham an invitation to join, Durham declined, noting that such a gesture, “would have pleased me when I wanted it," but that it meant nothing when he no longer needed it. On Dec. 22, 1970, Durham passed away. He was posthumously honored with membership in the Dallas Bar Association several years ago, an accolade accepted by surviving family members.

The enraged mob who lynched Hughes and burned down Sherman’s African-American business district in 1930 certainly could not have foreseen the chain of events they set in motion. A bespectacled young lawyer whose small town professional horizons didn’t extend beyond routine probate and business matters would find himself in the unlikely role of courtroom avenger arguing on the least level of playing fields for equality at the polling place and in the classroom. The steely resolve displayed by Durham from the humblest courtrooms of Texas to the marble grandeur of the Supreme Court was, ironically, forged in the fire of a lynch mob.