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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 noted for his armed self-defense of his newly purchased home in a white neighborhood in 1925 against a mob trying to force him out. One of the attacking mob was killed in the violence, and Sweet and his family and friends, who had helped him defend his home, were charged with murder. After an initial mistrial, Sweet and the other defendants were eventually acquitted by an all-white jury in what came to be known as the Sweet Trials.
Ossian Sweet was the second son born to Henry Sweet and Dora Devaughn in Bartow, Florida, eight days before the death of his oldest brother Oscar. Henry Sweet was a former slave from Florida. He bought land in Bartow in 1898 and moved there with his entire family. They lived in a small farmhouse, and all the children helped 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. As Sweet later explained at his murder trial, when he was a five-year-old boy, he witnessed the lynching of a black male teenager named Fred Rochelle. Rochelle, captured by black males and turned over to the sheriff, admitted to attacking and murdering a white female, 26-year-old Rena Smith Taggart, with a butcher knife in an apparent rape attempt. According to Sweet's account, he was out alone at night and a mile or more from his home, where he watched from the bushes as Rochelle was burned at the stake. “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 Ossian to go north and get an education. He was sent to Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, the first African-American college to be owned and operated by blacks. Established by a collaboration of white and black Methodists in the 1850s, it was taken over by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) during the American Civil War. He attended Wilberforce for eight years; the first four were spent in 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 additional 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. Sweet 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.
Throughout Sweet's early life, he demonstrated a clear dedication to school and overcoming the struggles of 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. They wanted to avoid his ever being a victim of Southern racial violence. 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 wrote about Sweet’s 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. The capital was among numerous cities that had outbreaks of racial violence in the so-called Red Summer of 1919. These resulted from social tensions and competition for jobs and housing as World War I veterans returned home. Black migrants from the South poured into the city's main black areas with the promise of wartime jobs, but the end of the war found veterans trying to re-enter the work force, and some jobs had disappeared altogether. There were not as many jobs in Washington as had been available during the war. Thousands of white soldiers were held on the outskirts of Washington D.C. while waiting to be discharged from their service. Boredom eventually hit; and when it did, a riot broke out that lasted five days and left six dead and 150 wounded.
Sweet was four blocks from the riots, but did not leave his fraternity house. Author Kevin Boyle said that Sweet and other young black men 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] Sweet had already seen his share of violence as a child when witnessing a lynching, and this memory would not leave him until his death.
Detroit and Black Bottom
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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. A booming modern metropolis paved the way for the growth of the auto industry; around 1913, the pull for jobs on the assembly lines fueled enormous migration to Detroit. 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 segregation in the city. It attracted European immigrants and rural blacks in the Great Migration, as well as rural whites. Each brought their own social tensions to the city.
"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 in his book as dingy and rundown, with rooms barely large enough to accommodate families. Homes in central Black Bottom were decaying. When it rained, water would flood through the ceilings, wind came through holes in the walls where the plaster had cracked off, and many of the windows had no glass. Boyle gives evidence that 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.
African-American migrants were largely restricted to Black Bottom. With no place else to go, Black Bottom remained the home of the poor working class, and landlords felt no need to make improvements to living quarters. The poor living conditions led to the constant threat of infection and spread of disease, and many died of smallpox, pneumonia, and syphilis. "Black Bottom" became the name of a popular dance in the Florida/New Orleans areas in 1926–1927. It was performed at the Apollo Theater and was modeled after young black children’s imitations of cows stuck in the mud. In the 1960s, Black Bottom was demolished during the city's urban renewal program and replaced by what is currently known as Lafayette Park.
Sweet encountered difficulty finding work at a hospital due to his race, but his summers waiting at Detroit restaurants helped him see the need for medical care among residents in Black Bottom. Black Bottom was an overpopulated black ghetto in which migrant workers from the South made their homes during the Great Migration. These proto-ghettos were extremely poor areas, being unsanitary with few sources of water; they were built near industry and had issues of hazardous waste. Overpopulation and the steady influx of migrants, who lacked medical care amid cramped quarters, caused diseases and created imminent threats to life. 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 gave $100 to a pharmacy, Palace Drugs, in exchange for office space. His first client, Elizabeth Riley, feared she had contracted tetanus because her jaw grew stiff. Sweet was able to diagnose that it was not an infection, but rather simply a dislocated jaw. He reset the bone, and Riley told friends in the neighborhood about his practice. His list of patients grew, and "Ossian was named 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. She came from a prominent middle-class black family. Recognizing a need for further medical training, Sweet left his practice in 1923 to study in Vienna and Paris. Although he did not complete a degree there, Sweet attended lectures by noted physicians and scientists, including Madame Curie. In non-segregated Paris, he and his wife were treated as equals to the native French Caucasians. His only experience with prejudice while in Europe was at the American Hospital, where he donated a relatively large amount of money given his finances, 300 francs. When he sought to reserve space for his wife to deliver their baby, the American Hospital refused on the grounds that the white Americans in the hospital did not want to be mixed with black patients. On May 29, 1924, Gladys gave birth to a baby girl named Marguerite, who they later called Iva. The thought that the American Hospital had “imperiled the health, and perhaps the life of Gladys and Iva” infuriated him, and reminded Sweet of the world to which they would return.
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 wife’s parents home in an all-white neighborhood to 2905 Garland Street, another all-white neighborhood at Garland and Charlevoix.
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. This meant that there was more of a push against the city's well-defined color line, to not surrender to it at that particular time.
Garland Avenue bungalow
Because of his post-graduate training in France, Dr. Sweet was more educated than most white men. Ordinarily a young man of his professional status would have no trouble finding a respectable home in a respectable neighborhood, but he had to face racial 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 of the Sweets' first impression of the house at 2905 Garland, the Sweets were less than impressed. The area was a "workingman's" area 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. The owners of the home believed they could get a higher price from the Sweets than they might have from a white family with more choices. On June 7, 1925, the Sweets bought the house for US$18,500 (equivalent to $252,646 in 2016), about $6,000 more than the house's fair market value. The Sweets moved into the house on September 8, 1925.
Sweet knew friends and acquaintances who had suffered attacks after buying houses in white neighborhoods. The social volatility of the time resulted in the formation of the Waterworks Park Improvement Association; it was based on opposition to blacks moving into formerly all-white neighborhoods. These people were afraid that allowing blacks into their neighborhoods would lower property values. This was important because at this time, buying a home was a very difficult and lengthy process. The idea of buying land free and clear was no longer an option for most blacks, forcing them instead to take out multiple mortgages to buy a home, leading to even more debt. Working-class whites who lived in the neighborhood and made less money than Sweet resented his success.
Fearing an attack after he moved in, Sweet had nine other men at his house on the night of September 9, 1925, to help defend his family and property. 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 bungalow. Police inspector Norton Schuknecht and a detail of officers had been placed outside the Sweet house to keep the peace, and to protect Ossian and Gladys from any angry neighbors. 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 some, possibly children or teenagers, threw stones at the house, eventually breaking an upstairs window. Several of Dr. Sweet’s friends were waiting upstairs, armed with guns that Sweet had purchased prior to moving in. Shots were fired from upstairs, hitting two men. One of them, Eric Houghberg, was wounded in the leg. The other man, Leon Breiner, was killed. The eleven African Americans inside were later brought to police headquarters and interrogated for five hours. Interrogations would last for an extended period of time and the men were held at the Wayne County Jail until the trial was over.
The Sweets and their friends were tried for murder before a young judge, Frank Murphy. Judge Murphy was considered one of the more liberal 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 accused individuals in obtaining money and support necessary to defend themselves at trial. The NAACP requested that Johnson send investigator Walter White to assist the accused by performing investigations on their behalf. The Sweet trial was one of three main trials the NAACP supported that year. The NAACP's funds were limited, so they had to carefully choose 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 on, 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, knowing Darrow's reputation as one of the most brilliant defense attorneys in the country would attract much-wanted publicity to the case and 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 led to an acquittal of Ossian's brother, Henry Sweet. The prosecuting attorney elected to dismiss the charges against the remaining defendants.
After Ossian was acquitted, life for the Sweets was not as joyous as hoped. Both Gladys and her daughter, Iva, were found to have contracted tuberculosis. Gladys believed she contracted it while in jail. Two months after her second birthday, Iva died. During the two years following the loss of their daughter, Gladys' illness drove her and Ossian apart. He returned to the apartment near Dunbar Memorial, and she went to Tucson, Arizona, in order to benefit from the drier climate.
By mid-1928, Sweet finally regained possession of the bungalow, which had not been lived in since the shooting. A few months after Gladys returned home, she died of tuberculosis, 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, Ossian realized that his brother had also contracted tuberculosis; six months later, the brother died.
By this point, Ossian's finances had failed him. It took him until 1950 to pay off the land contract, and he assumed full ownership of the bungalow. 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 was a best-seller written by Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Ohio State University. Boyle's book 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 after one of the performances of the play 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 and performing arts co-chair at the University of Detroit Mercy, and also adapted from Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice, dramatizes the events as well. The play serves an important historical role not only in the history of Detroit, where the incident and trials occurred, but also in the history of the United States as a whole. Initially performed in 1987, the play returned to production in 2007 for its 20-year anniversary.
My Name is Ossian Sweet, a play and docudrama by Gordon C. Bennett, based on the Sweet family's attempt to integrate a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925, and their defense by Clarence Darrow against the charge of murder, was published in 2011 at www.HeartlandPlays.com.
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