On September 9, 1925, two long-standing features of American life—violence by whites against blacks and the right of a homeowner to use force against intruders—collided in Detroit, Michigan, with deadly results. After an African-American physician, Ossian Sweet, moved into a bungalow in an all-white neighborhood on Detroit's East Side, a mob of whites gathered outside the house, bent on driving Sweet and his family away. Similar actions had succeeded in terrorizing other blacks who had crossed residential color lines, in Detroit and other cities, but Sweet told his brother—according to Douglas O. Linder in Famous Trials in 2000—"I have to die like a man or live a coward."
Sweet moved guns and ammunition into his new house, and relatives and friends came by to help him. As the mob threw rocks and broke the windows of Sweet's substantial bungalow, shots rang out from the second floor. One of the hundreds of white attackers, former coal miner Leon Breiner, was killed, and another was wounded. Sweet and the other ten people in the house, including his wife, Gladys, faced murder charges. In the legal proceedings that followed, Sweet's group was represented by one of the most famous defense attorneys of the day, Clarence Darrow.
Named for Ossian Hart, an African-American governor of Florida during the Reconstruction era, Ossian Sweet was born in Orlando on October 30, 1895. His mother, Dora, was related to a group of African Methodist Episcopal ministers who had helped fan the hopes of blacks in Florida after the Civil War. The family moved to the town of Bartow, in central Florida, when Sweet's father, Henry, bought a plot of land there and began to farm it. They prospered, but the central events of young Ossian Sweet's life had nothing to do with abundance. He remembered lynchings, including one, as he recalled, in which a white crowd poured kerosene over a black man's body, lit it, and picked off bits of charred flesh for souvenirs. Several times, Bartow escaped only narrowly the white riots that killed dozens of blacks as the South's racial environment reached a low point around 1900.
Sweet's parents decided that they had to get their academically talented son out of the South's restrictive environment and sent him north to Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. Arriving in 1909, when he was thirteen years old, Sweet completed a college-preparatory curriculum and then entered the university's four-year program, graduating in 1917. In the summers he headed north to the boomtown of Detroit, where he thought he could make more money. His first job was washing dishes at the Boblo Island amusement park for a dollar per day, but he worked his way up to hotel bellhop jobs and worked several times as a waiter on the cruise ships that sailed Lake Erie.
Became a Doctor
After the United States entered World War I, many Wilberforce students heeded the call of black leader W. E. B. DuBois for blacks to enlist in the U.S. Army so that African Americans could hold their country to the democratic ideals it claimed to espouse in foreign conflicts. Sweet went for a physical exam but was rejected for service because of his poor eyesight. Instead he decided he wanted to be a doctor, which was the most prestigious profession most African Americans could aspire to at the time. He enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., experiencing but apparently not being directly affected by the white riots in that city in 1919—notable because this was one of the few times in which black residents organized, distributed firearms, and fought back, probably limiting their casualties. Sweet received his doctor of medicine degree in 1921 and headed back to Detroit, which seemed to him to offer the best opportunities for a black physician at the time.
Things went well at first. Sweet opened a medical practice in the back of a pharmacy, Palace Drugs, in the city's crowded Black Bottom neighborhood on the near East Side. Word of his skills spread after he reassured a woman with a paralyzed jaw that she did not have the dreaded disease of tetanus—she had just dislocated her jaw. Members of black fraternal organizations steered business his way, and he gained admitting privileges at Dunbar Hospital, founded by black physicians to treat the needs of Detroit's exploding African-American population. More money came in from a job as a medical examiner for Liberty Life Insurance, and in 1922 Sweet felt established enough to marry Gladys Mitchell, the daughter of a local pit-orchestra musician who lived in a middle-class neighborhood that was home to a few other well-off black families. The young couple moved into the home of Gladys's parents.
Sweet even took a year off from working in Detroit to go to Europe for further medical studies, first in Vienna, Austria, and then in Paris, France, where he absorbed the early studies on the use of radiation in the treatment of cancer directly from radiation's discoverer, Polish-French Nobel Prize-winner Marie Curie. While he and Gladys were in France, Gladys gave birth to a daughter, Marguerite, whom they nicknamed Iva. Doctors at an American-run hospital in the Paris suburb of Neuilly would not admit Gladys because of her race, even though Ossian Sweet had made a three-hundred-franc contribution to the hospital's operations.
On returning to Detroit in 1924, Sweet resolved to move his family out of the Mitchells' house and into a place of their own. He also became more involved with the early civil rights movement and joined the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Bought Home in White Neighborhood
Soon Sweet heard about a spacious home at 2905 Garland on the city's lower East Side—a different kind of neighborhood from the Mitchells', populated mostly by factory workers. The atmosphere in Detroit was still volatile; a Ku Klux Klan candidate had won a majority in the city's 1924 mayoral election but had been denied the victory because supporters misspelled his name on write-in ballots. Black professionals in Detroit became fearful when physician A. L. Turner moved into a house on an all-white street one block outside the boundaries of an established black neighborhood, only to be driven out by mob attacks. Sweet, however, was assured that he would have no problems—after all, the couple, named Smith, with whom he signed a purchase agreement, was interracial. Mr. Smith, however, had skin so light that he could pass for white.
Sweet notified Detroit police that he planned to move in on September 8, and several officers were on hand that night as a crowd (having dubbed themselves the "Water Works Improvement Association") gathered and then dispersed. The following night the crowd returned—prosecutors later attempted to show that it consisted of only a few dozen people, but a Detroit News reporter testified that between four hundred and five hundred people filled Garland Avenue and Charlevoix Street. Stones began to strike the roof, and the roar of the crowd intensified. Sweet distributed guns to his supporters, testifying later, according to Linder in Famous Trials, that "I realized in a way that I was facing that same mob that had hounded my people through its entire history. I realized my back was against the wall and I was filled with a peculiar type of fear—the fear of one who knows the history of my race."
At a Glance …
Born on October 30, 1895, in Orlando, FL; died on March 19, 1960, in Detroit, MI; son of Henry and Dora Sweet; married Gladys Mitchell, December 20, 1922 (died 1928); two subsequent marriages (both ended in divorce); children: (first marriage) Marguerite ("Iva"; died 1926); Religion: African Methodist Episcopal. Education: Wilberforce University, BS, 1917; Howard University Medical School, MD, 1921; further medical study in Vienna, Austria, and Paris, France, 1923-24.
Career: Active as a physician in Detroit, MI, 1921-23 and 1924-60; charged with first-degree murder after members of a mob were shot outside his house, 1925; not convicted.
After a volley of shots from the house's second-story windows killed Breiner and wounded Eric Houghberg in the leg, all eleven people in the house, including Gladys Sweet, were arrested and charged with murder. Some of them, confused and exhausted, gave contra- dictory testimony to police. At first they were defended by local black lawyers, but national NAACP officials, sensing a powerful forum for their cause, decided to hire the most celebrated white lawyer they could find. With his work completed on the Scopes trial in Tennessee, in which he had defended teacher John Scopes on charges of illegally teaching the theory of evolution in the state of Tennessee, Clarence Darrow was available and agreed to take the cases of Sweet and his companions.
Tried for Murder
Several factors lined up in Darrow's favor. First was the impossibility of determining who had fired the fatal shot. Another was the installation of Frank Murphy as judge, a liberal jurist who later became Michigan's governor and a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Weighing against these considerations were that police were on hand at the Sweet home and that the violent acts carried out in his house appeared to be premeditated. When Sweet's group went on trial on October 30, 1925, Darrow listened as prosecutors called seventy-one witnesses, trying to show that Sweet had faced no real threat from a small crowd, and that premeditated murder had been committed despite promises of full police protection.
The case was one of the last tried by the aging Darrow, but his powers were undiminished. More and more blacks filled the courtroom as he examined witnesses and made his arguments. He was able to shake the testimony of several white teenagers in the crowd, who admitted that it had been their intention to force the Sweets out, and he brought to the stand several witnesses who established that Sweet and his friends were facing an onrushing mob of hundreds of angry rioters. Darrow proved a sympathetic questioner of the often-reserved Sweet himself. An all-white, all-male jury deliberated for forty-six hours before telling Murphy that they were unable to reach a decision.
Prosecutors moved for a retrial, and in April of 1926 Darrow returned to Detroit. He succeeded in splitting the case into eleven separate trials, with Ossian's brother Henry Sweet, whom police believed was the shooter, going on trial first. Darrow's eight-hour defense summation went down in legal lore, and Murphy, again presiding, called Darrow "the most Christlike man I have ever known," as quoted by Linder. Henry Sweet was acquitted, after which all the remaining charges were dropped. Ossian Sweet finally took possession of the Garland Avenue bungalow later in the decade and continued to live there without incident, although threats still emanated from the Water Works Improvement Association. The house still stands today as a private residence.
Despite his legal triumph, the rest of Sweet's life was mostly unhappy. Iva Sweet died of tuberculosis in 1926 at the age of two, and Sweet, told to enter through the back gate of Roseland Park Cemetery north of Detroit, pulled a gun on the gatekeeper and was admitted at the regular entrance. Gladys, having contracted the same disease possibly while in jail awaiting trial, passed away two years later. Sweet and a Howard-trained nurse, Bertha McKenzie, opened Good Samaritan Hospital in 1929, and he acquired a profitable Black Bottom pharmacy. But black activist opinion in Detroit was split on the question of Sweet's violent resistance, and his run for the presidency of the Detroit NAACP was unsuccessful. He ran for seats in the Michigan state senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, but those campaigns, too, were unsuccessful. Two later marriages ended in divorce, and Sweet encountered financial problems. He fell behind on paying property taxes on the Garland Avenue house and sold it to a family of black migrants from the South in 1958, moving into an apartment above his pharmacy in Black Bottom. He died there, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, on March 19, 1960.
Boyle, Kevin, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, Holt, 2004.
Vine, Phyllis, One Man's Castle: Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream, Amistad, 2004.
American History, December 1998, p. 26.
Detroit News, February 12, 2001.
U.S. News & World Report, December 6, 2004, p. 20.
Farley, Reynolds, "Home of Dr. Ossian Sweet," Detroit: The History and Future of the Motor City, Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, http://www.detroit1701.com/SweetHome.htm (accessed March 14, 2008).
"Good Samaritan Hospital," Black-Owned and -Operated Hospitals in the Detroit Metropolitan Area during the 20th Century, Kellogg African American Health Care Project, 2000, University of Michigan, http://www.med.umich.edu/haahc/Hospitals/hospital1.htm (accessed March 14, 2008).
Linder, Douglas O., "The Sweet Trials: An Account," Famous Trials, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, 2000, http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/sweet/sweetaccount.HTM (accessed March 14, 2008).
—James M. Manheim
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