Ossian Sweet

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Ossian Sweet
Ossian Sweet.gif
Born(1895-10-30)October 30, 1895
DiedMarch 20, 1960(1960-03-20) (aged 64)
Alma mater
Scientific career
FieldsInternal medicine
InstitutionsDunbar Hospital

Ossian Sweet (/ˈɒʃən/ OSH-ən; October 30, 1895 – March 20, 1960) was an African-American physician in Detroit, Michigan known for being charged with murder in 1925 after he and friends used armed self-defense against a hostile white crowd protesting his moving into their neighborhood. Stones were thrown at his house, breaking windows; shots were fired, and one white man was killed and another wounded. Sweet, his wife, and nine associates at the house (including two brothers) were all arrested and charged with murder.

At the first trial, the jury could not agree on verdicts for several defendants. The judge declared a mistrial. The court accepted the defense motion to sever the defendants, and the prosecutor decided to first try Henry Sweet, Ossian's youngest brother. After the all-white jury acquitted Henry Sweet, the prosecutor declined to prosecute the rest of the defendants and dismissed the charges against them. These were known together as the Sweet Trials. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) provided assistance for the defense of Sweet and his co-defendants, including hiring the noted attorney Clarence Darrow. This increased attention for the trials, which were covered by national media.

Sweet struggled in later life. His daughter, wife and brother Henry all died of tuberculosis, the first two within a few years of the trial.

Early years[edit]

Ossian Sweet was born in 1895, the second son of Henry Sweet and Dora Devaughn, in Bartow, Florida. Eight days later his oldest brother Oscar died.[1] The father Henry Sweet was a former slave, born in Florida. In 1898 he bought a farm in the county seat of Bartow and moved there with his entire family. They lived in a small farmhouse, and the children worked with the farm animals and in the fields. The Sweets had a total of ten children; they lived in cramped quarters and on what little money they could earn through their farm. At the age of five, Sweet witnessed the lynching of a black male teenager named Fred Rochelle, who was burned to death by a white mob. According to Sweet's later account, he was out alone at night about a mile from home, where he watched from the bushes as Rochelle was burned. "He'd recount it with frightening specificity: the smell of the kerosene, Rochelle's screams as he was engulfed in flames, the crowd's picking off pieces of charred flesh to take home as souvenirs".[2]


In September 1909, Sweet left Florida at age thirteen. Sweet's parents had instilled religious traditions in him, and they wanted the youth to get an education in the North. He was sent to Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, the first college to be owned and operated by blacks. Established by a collaboration of white and black Methodists in the mid-1850s, it was taken over during the Civil War by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). The Methodist Church had withdrawn support because of the war, and the school was struggling financially after most of its paying students, mixed-race sons of white Southern planters, were withdrawn.[3][4]

Sweet attended Wilberforce for eight years. During the first four he studied in its prep school, taking Latin, history, mathematics, English, music, drawing, philosophy, social and introductory science and foreign language (probably French) to prepare for college, because he needed education beyond what had been provided in his segregated Florida schools. Sweet took work shoveling snow, stoking furnaces, washing dishes, waiting tables, and working as a hotel bellhop to pay the $118 for his tuition and books. At Wilberforce, he became a charter member of the Delta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi and earned a bachelor of science degree at the age of twenty-five. After Wilberforce, Sweet attended Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., where he earned his medical accreditation.

As a youth Sweet had demonstrated dedication to school and he continued to work to succeed as a Southern black man in the Jim Crow era. Sweet's parents were among many Southern families who sent their children to the North for better educations, and in the hope that their son could gain opportunities not available in the South. Sweet became the leader in his family; he paved the way for his younger siblings to work hard and become educated as well. Through his education he aspired to be among what W. E. B. Du Bois called the Talented Tenth: black professionals who would improve life for their people. Du Bois later wrote about Sweet's legal case and held the physician up as an example of achievement to inspire young African-American men.[5]

Red Summer[edit]

In July 1919, Sweet was attending Howard University when he witnessed the Washington, D.C. race riot. The capital was among 20 cities that had outbreaks of racial violence in the so-called Red Summer of 1919. These resulted from postwar social tensions and competition for jobs and housing as World War I veterans returned home. There was little help for veterans trying to re-enter the work force, and both whites and blacks resented their difficulties. Rumors of a white woman being attacked by blacks set off a mob that went to a black neighborhood and attacked people on the street.[6] For the next three days, the riot flared up in different areas of the city, with white men, including many in military uniform, pulling black people from street cars or attacking them on the street. Black citizens armed themselves and fought back. The riot resulted in deaths of 10 white people, including two police officers, and five black people. It was one of the first riots of whites against blacks in which more whites died.[7] Some 150 persons were wounded, fifty of them severely. President Woodrow Wilson called up the National Guard to suppress the violence, but a fierce rainstorm helped end the mob's enthusiasm as well.

Located in his fraternity house four blocks from one area of fighting on H Street NE, Sweet stayed inside with classmates for safety. He and his brothers were afraid to go out. Earlier while walking down the street, he had seen a white gang stop a passing streetcar, pull a black passenger to the sidewalk, and "beat him mercilessly".[page needed] This sight stayed with him all his life.

Detroit and Black Bottom[edit]

With little money, Sweet arrived in Detroit, Michigan in the late summer of 1921. The city evaded Prohibition with speakeasies (with much liquor smuggled from Canada by groups such as the Purple Gang), jazz music was thriving, and residential areas were crowded with new arrivals. Drugs, gambling, and prostitution swept the city. According to Kevin Boyle, in 1910 Detroit was on its way to become an industrial powerhouse. The growth of the auto industry stimulated enormous migration to Detroit: European immigrants and both white and black migrants from the rural South competed for limited housing. In 1910, the population of Detroit was approximately 485,000; by 1920 it had more than doubled. As migration increased, so did competition for jobs and housing, and the pressure of segregation in the city. Housing was limited and many of the newest arrivals could afford only the poorest and oldest housing.

"Despite its name, Black Bottom wasn't really a colored area. Most of its residents were immigrants, not negroes", states Boyle. Black Bottom was a neighborhood of the poor working-class people of Detroit. Boyle describes Black Bottom as dingy and rundown, with rooms barely large enough to accommodate families. Homes in central Black Bottom were decaying. With demand high and racial discrimination evident in the real estate market, agents sometimes refused to show blacks homes in white neighborhoods, for they feared black occupancy would bring down property values.

Together with the more recent, poorer European immigrants, African-American migrants were largely restricted to Black Bottom. It remained the home of the poor working class and, due to high demand, landlords could rent without making improvements. The poor living conditions contributed to infection and the spread of disease, and many died of smallpox, pneumonia, and syphilis.

(In the 1960s, most Black Bottom housing was demolished during the city's urban renewal program. It was replaced by development of a residential area currently known as Lafayette Park.)


Sweet had difficulty finding work at a hospital due to his race, and he worked during the summers at Detroit restaurants. He could see that residents of Black Bottom urgently needed medical care. According to Kevin Boyle in Arc of Justice, "rudimentary care could have saved some of them. But Black Bottom didn't get even that".[citation needed]

Sweet saw a chance to practice medicine and help people. He paid a local pharmacy for space for an office. His first client, Elizabeth Riley, feared she had contracted tetanus because her jaw grew stiff. Sweet diagnosed a dislocated jaw rather than infection. He reset the bone, and Riley told neighborhood friends about his practice. His list of patients grew. Sweet gained a position as a medical examiner for Liberty Life Insurance, "an appointment that assured him a steady stream of patients he might not have otherwise have acquired".[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

Sweet married Gladys Mitchell in 1922. Born in Pittsburgh, she grew up in Detroit, a few miles north of Garland Street. She came from a prominent middle-class black family. In 1923 Sweet temporarily left his practice for further medical studies in Vienna and Paris. He attended lectures by noted physicians and scientists, including Madame Curie. In Paris, he and his wife were treated as equals by the native French people, and found it a kind of freedom. They encountered prejudice only at the American Hospital, which refused to admit his pregnant wife because of discrimination by white patients. On May 29, 1924, Gladys gave birth to a baby girl named Marguerite, whom they later called Iva. Sweet was furious that the American Hospital had "imperiled the health, and perhaps the life of Gladys and Iva".

By June 21, 1924, the Sweets returned to Detroit. Sweet became affiliated with Dunbar Hospital, Detroit's first black hospital. According to Boyle, Sweet earned the respect of his colleagues at Dunbar. Having saved enough money, he purchased a house at 2905 Garland Street in an all-white neighborhood.

Sweet was aware that many white residents were prejudiced against blacks. In the spring of 1925, other houses bought by middle-class blacks in white neighborhoods had been attacked. Sweet liked the appearance and size of the house, and what its location represented as a good neighborhood. Most African Americans in Detroit still lived in Black Bottom, but those who prospered moved to better neighborhoods, which Sweet wanted for his own family. Also, he felt he could not back down from buying the house. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had just been revived in Detroit after two years of inactivity. Members were organizing to challenge the city's well-defined residential color line.

Garland Avenue house[edit]

Ossian H. Sweet House at 2905 Garland

Dr. Sweet was more educated than many white men in the industrial city of Detroit. Because of his race, he was forced to deal with discrimination. The Sweets had a difficult time finding a realtor, followed by difficulty finding a family who would sell them a house. According to Kevin Boyle's account, the Sweets were less than impressed with the house they were shown on Garland. The area was working class, filled with modest houses and two-family flats, but the location was ideal. It was close to Sweet's office and to Gladys' parents' home. On June 7, 1925, the Sweets bought the house for US$18,500 (equivalent to $264,301 in 2018), about $6,000 more than the house's fair market value.[8] The Sweets moved into the house on September 8, 1925.

House attack[edit]

Sweet knew of African Americans who had suffered attacks on their homes in the spring of 1925 after buying houses in white Detroit neighborhoods. The Waterworks Park Improvement Association was formed by whites who opposed blacks moving into formerly all-white neighborhoods, as they feared social disruption and a loss of value in their homes. Buying a home was a very difficult and lengthy process. Most blacks had to take out multiple mortgages in order to buy a home, and to assume more debt than did whites of similar income. Many working-class whites who lived in the neighborhood and made less money than Sweet resented his success.[citation needed]

Because of confrontation by white neighbors the first day the Sweets moved in, on the night of September 9, 1925, police inspector Norton Schuknecht and a detail of officers were assigned outside the Sweet house to keep the peace. Sweet arranged privately for family and friends to help defend his home if needed. The men included Charles Washington (insurance man), Leonard Morse (colleague), William Davis, Otis and Henry Sweet (Ossian's brothers), John Latting (Henry Sweet's college friend), Norris Murray (handyman), and Joe Mack (chauffeur). Gladys Sweet stayed at the house with the men.

When a hostile crowd formed for the second consecutive night in front of his home, Sweet felt that "somewhere out there, standing among the women and children, lounging on the porches, lurking in the alleys were the men who would incite the crowd to violence". As the crowd grew restless, they threw stones at the house, eventually breaking an upstairs window. Several of Sweet's friends were armed with guns and had taken positions upstairs. Someone fired from the house, hitting two white men. Eric Houghberg was wounded in the leg; Leon Breiner, who had been watching the events from a porch on Garland Street, was killed. The eleven African Americans in the house were later taken to police headquarters, where they were questioned for five hours. All were arrested for murder. Interrogations continued. Although Gladys Sweet was released in early October on bail, the men were held at the Wayne County Jail until the trial was over.


The Sweets and their friends were tried for murder before Frank Murphy, a young judge. Judge Murphy was considered to be one of the more progressive judges in the city. With the media working the city into a frenzy, Murphy denied the defendants' appeal to have the case dismissed. But Sweet and the other accused parties remained hopeful. When word of the mass arrest reached James Weldon Johnson, general secretary of the NAACP, he correctly predicted that the case was one that could affect the burgeoning civil rights struggle for African Americans.

The NAACP assisted Sweet and the other defendants in obtaining money and support necessary for a defense at trial. The Detroit NAACP asked Johnson to send investigator Walter White to gain more information about the case. The Sweet trial was one of three major trials which the NAACP supported that year.[citation needed] As the organization's funds were limited, it had to assess which cases to assist. They based this decision on the potential media visibility of the cases, as well as which trials, if won, would help further African Americans as a race and inspire social change.

As September passed, life in the Wayne County Jail became slightly more comfortable for Sweet and the others. They received a steady stream of visitors, including Sweet's father, the elder Henry Sweet. On October 6, Gladys Sweet was released on bail provided by friends of her parents, to the relief of her husband.

In early October, Johnson invited Clarence Darrow to join the Sweets' defense team. He expected that Darrow's reputation as one of the most brilliant defense attorneys in the country would attract desired publicity to the trial and its issues. Darrow accepted, and on October 15 the NAACP announced he would be taking control of the defense. By the time of the trial, charges had been dropped against three of the original eleven defendants.

On the morning of Friday, October 30, Clarence Darrow was ready for trial. An all-white jury was seated. By the end of November, and after long deliberations, most members of the jury came to an agreement that the eight remaining defendants should be acquitted; there were, however, a few holdouts. At this point, Judge Murphy dismissed the hung jury and declared a mistrial.

Sweet and Gladys expected to head back to court within a few weeks, but there were delays. The court accepted Darrow's motion to have the trial of the defendants severed, with each to be tried separately. Sweet's youngest brother Henry was to be tried first. During the long delay between the first and second trial, Darrow did not devote much time to the Sweets' case. Almost three weeks after the announced trial date, the second trial started on Monday, April 19, 1926. Another all-white jury had been seated. After the jury acquitted Henry Sweet, the prosecuting attorney elected to dismiss the charges against the remaining seven defendants, including Sweet.

Later life[edit]

After Sweet and his friends were acquitted, his life continued to be difficult. Both Gladys and their daughter, Iva, were diagnosed with tuberculosis. Gladys believed she contracted the disease while in jail. Iva died two months after her second birthday. During the next two years, Gladys' illness drove her and Sweet apart, and he returned to the apartment near Dunbar Memorial. She went to Tucson, Arizona, in order to benefit from the drier climate, which was the preferred treatment for TB, an often fatal disease when antibiotics for it had not yet been developed.

By mid-1928, Sweet finally regained possession of his house, which had been vacant since the shooting. A few months after his wife Gladys returned home, she died of TB at the age of twenty-seven. After her death, Sweet bought Garafalo's Drugstore. In 1929, he left his practice to run a hospital in the heart of the ghetto. He would eventually run a few of these small hospitals, but none ever flourished financially. As he began to approach the age of fifty, Sweet started to buy land in East Bartow, Florida, as his father had. In 1930, he decided to run for the presidency of the NAACP branch in Detroit, but lost by a wide margin. In the summer of 1939, Sweet learned that his brother Henry had also contracted tuberculosis; six months later, Henry died.

By this point, Sweet's finances had failed. He was not able to pay off his land contract until 1950, when he assumed full ownership of the house. He faced too much debt after that to keep it. After selling the house in April 1958 to another black family, Sweet converted his former office above Garafalo's Drugstore into an apartment. Around this time, Sweet's physical and mental health began to decline; he had put on weight and slowed down. On March 20, 1960, he killed himself in his bedroom with a shot to the head.[9]


Sweet's life and his trial for murder have been dramatized and memorialized as important events in the Civil Rights Movement.



  1. ^ a b "Sweet, Ossian (1895-1960)". blackpast.org. Retrieved October 8, 2010.
  2. ^ Boyle, Kevin (2004). Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 69. ISBN 0805071458.
  3. ^ James T. Campbell, Songs of Zion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 259–260, accessed Jan 13, 2009
  4. ^ Talbert (1906), Sons of Allen, p. 267
  5. ^ Boyle, Kevin (2004). Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 247. ISBN 0805071458.
  6. ^ "Washingtonpost.com: Washington Century". www.washingtonpost.com.
  7. ^ Kenneth D. Ackerman, Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties (NY: Carroll & Graf, 2007), pp. 60-2
  8. ^ Manning Marable (April 4, 2011). Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Allen Lane. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-14-196720-2.
  9. ^ Boyle, Kevin (2005). Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age. Macmillan. pp. 344–6. ISBN 0805079335.
  10. ^ James Brennan (2008). "Michigan Historical Marker: Ossian Sweet House". MichMarkers.com. Retrieved December 4, 2008.
  11. ^ National Park Service (April 15, 2008). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  12. ^ a b c d Detroit City Council (February 1, 2007). "Testimonial Resolution: Professor Kevin Boyle". City of Detroit. Retrieved December 4, 2008.
  13. ^ UDM Theatre Department (February 3, 2007). "The Sweet Trials Project". University of Detroit Mercy. Retrieved December 4, 2008.
  14. ^ "Michigan Legal Milestones: Ossian Sweet Trial". State Bar of Michigan. 2008. Retrieved September 27, 2016.
  15. ^ Boyle, Kevin (2004). Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age. New York: Henry Holt & Company. ISBN 0-8050-7933-5.

Further reading[edit]

  • Darrow, Clarence (1932). "Chapter 34: The Negro in the North". The Story of My Life. New York: C. Scribner's Sons. OCLC 390064.
  • Darrow, Clarence (1963). "The Problem of the Negro". Verdicts Out of Court. Chicago: Quadrangle Books. OCLC 193194.
  • Haldeman-Julius, Marcet (1927). Clarence Darrow's Two Greatest Trials: Reports of the Scopes Anti-Evolution Case and the Dr. Sweet Negro Trial. Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius. OCLC 247255923.
  • Harris, Paul (1997). Black Rage Confronts the Law. New York: NYU Press. ISBN 0-8147-3527-4.
  • Hays, Arthur Garfield (1928). "Freedom of Residence". Let Freedom Ring. New York: Boni and Liveright. OCLC 2341733.
  • Levine, David Allan (1976). Internal Combustion: The Races in Detroit, 1915-1926. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-8371-8588-2.
  • Montefiore, Simon (2007). Speeches That Changed the World: The Stories and Transcripts of the Moments That Made History. London: Quercus. ISBN 978-1-84724-087-3.
  • Thomas, Richard Walter (1992). Life for Us Is What We Make It: Building Black Community in Detroit, 1915-1945. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-35990-2.
  • Tierney, Kevin (1979). "The Sweet Trials". Darrow: A Biography. New York: Crowell. ISBN 0-690-01408-2.
  • Vine, Phyllis (2005). One Man's Castle: Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream (First ed.). New York: Amistad. ISBN 978-0-06-621415-3.
  • Darrow, Clarence; Weinberg, Arthur (1989). "You Can't Live There!". Attorney for the Damned. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-13649-3.
  • Weinberg, Kenneth G. (1971). A Man's Home, A Man's Castle. New York: McCall. ISBN 0-8415-0109-2.
  • Wolcott, Victoria (2001). Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

External links[edit]