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October 30, 1895|
Bartow, Florida, USA
|Died||March 20, 1960
Detroit, Michigan, USA
|Alma mater||Howard University
Ossian Sweet (// OSH-ən; October 30, 1895 – March 20, 1960) was an 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 the house, breaking windows; shots were fired and one white man was killed and another wounded.
At the first trial, the jury could not agree on verdicts for several defendants. Another trial was held, and Sweet and the other defendants were acquitted by an all-white jury; these were known as the Sweet Trials. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had provided assistance for his defense, including hiring the noted attorney Clarence Darrow. The trials were covered by national media.
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. Their father Henry Sweet was a former slave, born in Florida. In 1898 he bought a farm in the county seat of Bartow in 1898 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”.
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), as the school was struggling financially after most of its students, mixed-race sons of white Southern fathers, were withdrawn. He attended Wilberforce for eight years; the first four were spent in its prep school studying 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 in Washington, D.C., where he earned his medical accreditation.
Sweet had demonstrated dedication to school and working 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 and 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 him up as an example for young African-American men to follow.
In 1919, Sweet was attending Howard University, a leading school for black medical education, when he witnessed the Washington, D.C. race riot that broke out in July. 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 struck against residents. For the next three days, the riot revived in different areas of the city, with white men in uniform pulling blacks from street cars or attacking them on the street. Blacks armed themselves and fought back. It left six dead and 150 wounded; the riot was suppressed by federal troops and a rainstorm.
Sweet was four blocks from an area of fighting on H Street NE, and stayed inside his fraternity house. He and his classmates were afraid to go out. He had been “walking down the street when a gang descended on a passing streetcar, pulled a black passenger down to the sidewalk, and beat him mercilessly”.[page needed] This sight stayed with him all his life.
Detroit and Black Bottom
This section may stray from the topic of the article. (August 2017)
With little money, Sweet arrived in Detroit, Michigan in the late summer of 1921, a time of speakeasies, jazz music, liquor, and slumming. It was also a time when 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, of both European immigrants and migrants from the rural South, both white and black. 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 the newest arrivals were pushed into the poorest 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 immigrants, African-American migrants were largely restricted to Black Bottom. It remained the home of the poor working class, and landlords could rent without making improvements. The poor living conditions contributed to infection and spread of disease, and many died of smallpox, pneumonia, and syphilis.
(In the 1960s, the Black Bottom housing was finally demolished during the city's urban renewal program and replaced by what is 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”.
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". According to Boyle, Sweet earned the respect of his colleagues at Dunbar Hospital.
Sweet married Gladys Mitchell in 1922. She was born in Pittsburgh and had been raised 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. He 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. Having saved enough money, he moved his family in 1925 from his parents-in-law's home in an all-white neighborhood to a house at 2905 Garland Street near Charlevoix, another white area. i
Sweet was aware of the neighborhood's prejudice and of the possible danger he would incur in purchasing the house, but he wanted it. He liked its appearance and size, and what it represented as a good neighborhood. Most African Americans in Detroit 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 home because the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had just been revived after two years of inactivity in Detroit. Members were organizing to challenge the city's well-defined color line.
Garland Avenue house
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 $258,157 in 2017), about $6,000 more than the house's fair market value. The Sweets moved into the house on September 8, 1925.
Sweet knew of African Americans who had attacks on their homes after buying houses in white neighborhoods. The Waterworks Park Improvement Association was formed by whites who opposed blacks moving into formerly all-white neighborhoods, as they feared 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 to buy a home, and take out more debt. Many working-class whites who lived in the neighborhood and made less money than Sweet resented his success.
Because of confrontation 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 for family and friends to help defend his home if needed. The men included Charles Washington (insurance man), Leonard Morse (colleague), William Davis, Henry and Otis Sweet (Ossian's brothers), John Latting (Henry's college friend), Norris Murray (handyman), and Joe Mack (chauffeur). Gladys was with them inside the house. 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, stones were thrown at the house, eventually breaking an upstairs window. Several of Sweet’s friends had taken positions upstairs and were armed with guns. Someone fired, hitting two men in the crowd. Eric Houghberg was wounded in the leg; Leon Breiner was killed. The eleven African Americans in the house were later taken to police headquarters, where they were questioned for five hours. Interrogations continued, and the men (and Grace?) were not released from 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 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 trial reached James Weldon Johnson, general secretary of the NAACP, Johnson correctly predicted that the case would 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 requested that Johnson send investigator Walter White to gain more information about the case. The Sweet trial was one of three main trials which the NAACP supported that year. As its 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. In early October, Johnson invited Clarence Darrow to join the Sweets' defense team. Darrow's reputation as one of the most brilliant defense attorneys in the country would attract desired publicity to the trial. Darrow accepted, and on October 15 it was announced he would be taking control of the defense.
Several days before that, on October 6, Gladys Sweet was released on bail provided by friends of her parents. Sweet was relieved. On the morning of Friday, October 30, Clarence Darrow was ready for trial. 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. During the long delay between the first and second trial, Darrow did not devote much time to the Sweets' case. Almost three weeks after it was planned to begin, the trial started on Monday, April 19, 1926. This shorter trial resulted in acquittal of Ossian's brother, Henry Sweet. The prosecuting attorney elected to dismiss the charges against the remaining defendants.
After Sweet and his friends were acquitted, life continued to be difficult. Both Gladys and their daughter, Iva, were found to have contracted tuberculosis. Gladys believed she contracted it while in jail. Iva died two months after her second birthday. During the next two years, Gladys' illness drove her and Sweet apart. 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 at a time when antibiotics for this had not been developed.
By mid-1928, Sweet finally regained possession of the house, which had been vacant since the shooting. A few months after 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. 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 him. It took him until 1950 to pay off the land contract, and he assumed full ownership of the house. He faced too much debt after that. Sweet sold the house in April 1958 to another black family. He transformed what had been his 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 had slowed in his motions. On March 20, 1960, he went into his bedroom and killed himself with a shot to the head.
Sweet's story and his trial for murder have been dramatized and memorialized as important events in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. The Ossian H. Sweet House at 2905 Garland became a registered Michigan State Historical Site, #S0461, in 1975, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Michigan Legal Milestones placed a commemorative plaque honoring the legacy of the Sweet Trials in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit.
Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, written by Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Ohio State University, became a bestseller. It won the National Book Award for non-fiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Sweet Trials, a play adapted by Boyle from his book, dramatizes the history of the trials and the era in which they took place. On February 2, 2007, Boyle was honored with a testimonial recognition from the city of Detroit in honoring civil rights.
Malice Aforethought: The Sweet Trials, a play written by Arthur Beer, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, and based on Boyle's history, also explores these events. Initially produced in 1987, the play was revived in 2007 for its 20-year anniversary.
My Name is Ossian Sweet, a play and docudrama by Gordon C. Bennett, was published in 2011 at www.HeartlandPlays.com.
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