The most important civil rights trial of the 1920s arose from events occurring at this bungalow at the corner of Garland and Charlevoix. The African American population of most northern cities was modest before World War I, and racial residential segregation was not enforced. Low-income blacks lived with poor immigrants, while a few prosperous black families lived with whites in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and other cities.
German submarines cut off the flow of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe as World War I began, but the booming industries of the North needed many more workers to produce munitions. White and black migrants from the US South filled that need, so the African American population of Detroit grew rapidly for the first time. As soon as they arrived, real estate brokers, city officials and most whites attempted to establish an American Apartheid system. Although no law or city ordinance mandated residential segregation in Detroit, blacks coming to the city during World War I were confined to Paradise Valley neighborhoods along Hastings Street, or to blocks west of Grand Boulevard between Michigan and Tireman or to a remote, rural area near Wyoming and Eight Mile where a wall separating blacks from white still stands.
As the black population grew and prospered, African American merchants and professionals prospered. Dr. Ossian Sweet—the oldest of ten children—was raised in Barstow, Florida, attended segregated Wilberforce College in Ohio and then earned his medical degree from Howard University. He recognized opportunities in Detroit and started a practice here, specializing in gynecology. In the early 1920s, Dr. Sweet recognized his need for further medical training and spent about a year in Europe doing post-graduate work in Vienna and then studying the use of radium treatment to reduce cancer at Madame Curie’s Institute in Paris. He returned to Detroit in 1924.
Detroit and other northern cities were riven by racial conflict in the 1920s. Neighborhoods, public schools and jobs were contested—sometimes violently. If whites could restrict blacks to their own neighborhoods, public schools would also be segregated, although in many cities, including Detroit, there was an effort to formally establish Jim Crow schools. After the U. S. Supreme Court, in 1917, ruled that cities could not enact ordinances preventing blacks from living in specified neighborhoods, restrictive covenants were commonly written into property deeds. These specified that a designated racial minority such as African Americans could never live in or own the property with such a restrictive covenant. Several black lawyers challenged the constitutionality of restrictive covenants in Michigan, but the state’s Supreme Court upheld them with several decisions. Just after World War I, the Ku Klux Klan was revived and moved north where their leaders found sympathetic supporters in southern white migrants. The KKK targeted Catholic and Jewish immigrants and blacks. Charles Bowels, the KKK candidate in Detroit’s 1924 mayoralty election, won the most votes. However, he was a write-in candidate and election officials ruled that votes for him would be counted only if the voter clearly wrote his name and spelled it entirely correctly.
A few prosperous blacks in Detroit tried to escape their residential confinement by buying homes in white neighborhoods. A handful moved in successfully but others faced great hostility. In some cases, white neighbors promptly bought them out, others were told to leave or risk the chance of having their home firebombed. In the early summer of 1925, a black doctor, A. L. Turner, purchased a home on Stockton in northeast Detroit and moved there. Shortly after his arrival, his white neighbors, apparently with the assistance of the Detroit police, invaded his home, loaded his furnishings on a truck and told him to get out and never come back.
After returning from Berlin and Paris, Dr. Sweet bought a home for his family commensurate with his status—the one at 2905 Garland. Ironically, the family selling the home—the Smith’s—was interracial, but Mr. Smith was so light-skinned that his neighbors assumed he was white; Sweet anticipated no troubles. Indeed, his wife’s parents lived in a white neighborhood. However, as soon as the residents near 2905 Garland learned of his race, trouble began. The Smiths were condemned for selling the home to a black and they warned the Sweets of the difficulties they would face. As soon as he purchased the residence, a block club was formed to keep him out. Dr. Sweet consulted other professional blacks who attempted integration, and realized that the Detroit police would likely offer little protection. Nevertheless, he informed the police of his intent to move into his new home. He expected trouble, so on his first night in this home—September 8, 1925—he asked his two brothers and a number of friends, including a federal narcotics agent, to spend the night with him. He and his friends prepared for hostilities by arming themselves with six revolvers, two rifles, a shotgun and, perhaps, as many as two thousand rounds of ammunition.
A crowd of whites gathered at the corner of Garland and Charlevoix on that evening, but there were eleven police officers present and no violence.
Dr. Sweet still feared trouble would escalate, so he asked an additional three friends to join him for the evening of September 9. At some point, the crowd apparently became aggressive, loudly proclaimed that they would drive the Sweets out and began stoning the home. Dr. Sweet and the other armed men inside believed that the home was under siege, and fearing that they might be burned to death when the house was incinerated and that the Detroit police would offer no assistance. Shots rang out from the second-story dormer. Instantly, one member of the crowd on Garland, Leon Breiner, was killed and another, Eric Hougberg, wounded in the thigh. At this point, police officers rushed the home and arrested all occupants, who were held without bail.
The city’s police chief demanded first degree murder charges but before going to trial, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) realized the fundamental importance of these events and came to Detroit to protect Dr. Sweet’s rights. Lynching was still frequently used in the South to kill blacks who were presumed guilty of criminal behavior or violating local racial mores. The NAACP feared that lynching would spread to the North and that blacks who did such things as moving into a white neighborhood would be killed. Spurning local black lawyers, the NAACP recruited former University of Michigan student, Clarence Darrow, to defend the occupants of Dr. Sweet’s home.
In the first trial, held in November, 1925, two contrasting views of the events of September 9 were presented to jurors. Dr. Sweet testified that the hostile crowd grew to 2,000 and that the police provided no protection. He contended that the 11 people in his home would have been murdered had they not defended themselves. He said that his home was pelted with rocks for at least 20 minutes before the gunfire. Police officials testified that the crowd was peaceful and much smaller—perhaps as few as 15. Newspaper reports estimated the crowd at 600. The strong card of the defense was to stress that the prosecution could not identify who fired the fatal shot. The all-white and all-male jury deliberated, but could reach no decision. Frank Murphy, a Detroit resident educated at the University of Michigan, who later served as Mayor of Detroit, Governor of Michigan and was member of the US Supreme Court, presided over the trail and was praised for his equitable treatment of all parties.
The retrial was very different. Clarence Darrow had each of the occupants of the home tried separately, beginning with Dr. Sweet’s younger brother—Henry—who admitted to firing the shots that killed Breiner and wounded Hougberg. Darrow then raised a civil rights defense, stressing that Dr, Sweet grew up in Florida where he had witnessed lynchings. He argued that Dr. Sweet had the responsibility and duty to protect his family and his property from the violence of the crowd that attacked his home with stones, and that he could not rely upon police protection. In the second trial also in front of Frank Murphy, another all-white, all-male jury acquitted Henry Sweet with just four hours of deliberation. Subsequently, charges against all others in the home were dropped.
This litigation was a tremendous victory for the civil rights movement since it asserted the right of African Americans in the North to defend their person and property, even if it required the use of violence. However, it was a pyrrhic victory. It conveyed the unambiguous message to middle-class blacks in northern cities that if they tried to escape confinement to the ghetto, they would likely face indifferent police officials and extremely hostile crowds of whites who would try to forcefully drive them back to black neighborhoods. Darrow claimed that the two victories that gave him greatest satisfaction were his defense of the teaching of evolution in the Scopes Monkey trial and his defense of the property rights of blacks in the Sweet case.
Dr. Sweet apparently came from an unusual family since he was named for a fourth century Irish warrior. In Gaelic, his name means large brow, suggesting intelligence. All of his nine siblings earned college degrees.
It would be nice to end this story pleasantly, but fate was not kind to Dr. Sweet. He was the target of several civil suits resulting from the violence and filed suit in return. He expected the NAACP to assist him in this litigation, but their officials found him to be a difficult man, so they cut their ties quickly. Because he and his relatives armed themselves so heavily to defend their home, they were not viewed with much sympathy. After his acquittal, Dr. Sweet maintained ownership of the home, but rented it out to a white family until 1930 when he moved there.
In the late 1920s, his two-year-old daughter and then his wife succumbed to the common killers of that pre-sulfa drugs era: tuberculosis and pneumonia. Because of his race, Dr. Sweet could not practice at most Detroit hospitals, although he had privileges at Dunbar Hospital. Dr. Sweet ran for political offices four times, but never won an election. Two subsequent marriages ended in divorce. In 1944, Dr. Sweet moved away from his home on Garland and purchased a pharmacy with a second-story apartment. He eventually gave up his medical license and became a pharmacist. He was arrested several times for prescribing without a license and for selling tobacco to minors. In the first year of the Civil Rights decade—March 19, 1960—Dr. Sweet took his own life in the apartment above his pharmacy.
Further reading and information:
The architect for home: Maurice Finkel Date of Completion: 1919
State of Michigan Register of Historic Places: P25258; Listed November 21, 1975
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Erected July 22, 2004
National Register of Historic Places: Listed 1985
Use in 2004: Residence
Book: One Man’s Castle: Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream; Phyllis Vine (Harper, Collins, 2004)
In summer of 2018, the federal government provided the city of Detroit with $500,000 to maintain Dr. Sweet’s home as an historic site.
Author: Reynolds Farley (http://www.detroit1701.org). Population Studies Center; Institute for Social Research; University of Michigan