Content Warning: This week’s post briefly discusses a lynching and other horrific things…
Our Tale this week opens on an ugly siege. The date September 9th 1925. The location 2905 Garland Street, Detroit, Michigan. The eleven men and women inside the house have provoked the ire of the Waterworks Improvement Association – the offence? daring to move in to a ‘nice neighbourhood’. In spite of a police presence, the large mob gathered across the road at the school on the 8th. The mob had grown even larger on the second night. Truthfully the police are only there to say the police were in attendance – and that they tried their best. When ‘Improvement clubs’ or ‘Neighbourhood associations’ are established, the police usually watch impassively. When people are hurt or killed, or properties are razed to the ground, it’s astonishing how often they were dealing with something else – and were sadly facing in the wrong direction at the time.
Inside, the new owner, his wife Gladys, two of his brothers – and a handful of friends. Heavily outnumbered, at least the besieged had guns and a large supply of ammo.
Just after 11pm, the Waterworks Improvement Association made their move. Yelling and hollering, the mob descended upon the house – throwing rocks at the property. As two windows were smashed and the mob were getting too close to the property, the besieged fired a fusillade of gunfire into the rabble. A man in the crowd was felled. Panicked, the mob dispersed – A ten year old neighbour later describing how the streets were too narrow to contain their hurried retreat.
Now, of course, the dozen police officers present did get involved – and arrested the eleven in the house immediately.
The occupant was one Ossian Sweet – a 30 year old doctor, recently returned from Austria and France. The real reason for the violent reception from the Waterworks Improvement Association? Ossian, Gladys and their young child were all African Americans moving into a white neighbourhood.
Born in 1895 in Bartow, Florida to working class parents, Ossian grew up well aware of the horrors of a system that continued to discriminate against black Americans. The brief Reconstruction era post US Civil War failed to bring lasting equality. Jim Crow era America reverted to a system apt to subjugate, criminalise, and on occasion – to execute members of a group it saw as either perpetual children or animals. Aged five, Sweet witnessed a horrific lynching while hiding behind a bush. The victim, a black man, was tied to a stake then burned alive in front of a rapturous crowd. As was often the case, onlookers took mementos from the killing – tearing pieces of burnt flesh from the body. Though I couldn’t tell you why this particular man was murdered – somewhere in the order of five thousand Americans – mostly black – were lynched in the Jim Crow era for anything from accusations of murder through to flirting with a white woman.
Ossian was living in a time of some positive change, however. His grandparents had been slaves, his parents laboured for wages. He would become a physician. The year he was born, Booker T Washington – the famed educator who founded the Tuskegee Institute – gave a speech known as the ‘Atlanta Compromise’. In the speech he called for young black people to take up vocational training in working class trades. He called for young intellectuals to stop agitating against the ‘Seperate but equal’ Jim Crow laws, and to step away from higher education or aspirations of political office. In return he called on the white community to get fully behind the up-skilling of the black community. His biggest rival, fellow educationalist W.E.B Du Bois called the compromise out, pointing out it would embed the black community forever as second class citizens in America. His rival plan – to ensure the ‘Talented Tenth’ – the smartest ten percent of black kids – got higher educations and entered the higher professions.
Ossian and his brothers were of the ten percent. Aged 13 he was sent to live in Ohio, He studied at Wilberforce University – America’s first black university – in Ohio, before enrolling in medical school at Howard University, Washington DC.
While in University, Ossian witnessed another horrific incident. A black man was pulled from a streetcar by a white mob, just blocks from his campus. Far from a one off, this was a small part of what became known as the ‘Red Summer’.
The First World War breaking out in Europe was an economic boon for the Industrial cities in the North of the USA – something especially true of car manufacturers. While the Jeep was a whole world war away, armour plated vehicles – Ford Model T’s among them – were just flying off the production lines. There were barely enough men in the factories as it was, when the USA entered the war in 1917. To keep production lines going, factories sent recruiters into the South to find able-bodied men.
The ‘Great Migration’ a mass relocation north for tens of thousands of black Americans had begun a few years earlier, but this accelerated the process immensely. The African American population of Detroit, for example, grew twenty-fold between 1910 and 1930. While the First Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of black Americans northwards – it also brought similar numbers of white southerners. Many of these new arrivals carried with them the white supremacist beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan. This led to a rise in white supremacist activity in the North (for example, the Detroit chapter of the KKK alone had 100,000 members – and even nearly got one of their own, Charles S. Bowles, elected as mayor).
Being uncertain times, formerly fringe ideas spread easily in the North – a wave of white supremacist violence towards black people in dozens of cities was the result. Whenever black people tried to band together for protection, they were branded – especially in the press – as Bolsheviks, or at least in league with communists and anarchists. A number of civil rights leaders were socialists, but this was rhetoric meant to scare everyday white people into backing the KKK. The Klan violence had everything to do with some white people objecting to working and living alongside black people, and little to do with ‘reds under the bed’.
At least 250 black Americans were murdered, hundreds more injured in the Red Summer. Many more besides were left homeless in the wake of the riots.
Dr Sweet moved to Detroit in 1921, setting up a practice in Black Bottom – an over-populated black neighbourhood. He met, and fell in love with Gladys Mitchell. The two married in 1923 – and for a while moved to Europe – where Ossian continued his studies. On their return – now with a young child – they sought out a home of their own. Time and again they were turned away from white, middle class homes in wealthier neighbourhoods. Though the North was not segregated in quite the same way as the South, local government bodies could enact all kinds of ordinances making it difficult for black people to buy in white neighbourhoods. Sellers would often raise the price for black buyers without consequence too. When the couple bought 2905 Garland Street in June 1925 – in a white working class neighbourhood – they grudgingly paid more than $18,500 for a property valued at only around $12,500 to a white buyer.
As soon as word got out a black family were moving in – locals formed an ‘improvement association’ under the pretence they were meeting to discuss the neighbourhood’s water pipes. Plans were soon under way to do as numerous other ‘improvement associations’ had before them – to violently force the Sweets out, back into the overcrowded ‘black’ neighbourhoods.
Now given all that’s been said so far, I’m wary of introducing a ‘white saviour’ figure to this tale – but I needs must introduce Clarence Darrow. Known as ‘the attorney for the damned’, Clarence Darrow really was a remarkable figure. Born in Ohio in 1857, Darrow came from a family of abolitionists and free thinkers – and very much carried on their tradition. I won’t say too much on him today (I’ll come back to Clarence for future Tales) but if you can imagine most stereotypical television geniuses of the last few decades – unkempt, non-conformist, too damn good at their job to be let go for their eccentricities – you’re in the right ballpark for Mr Darrow. His nickname says it all really – if Clarence Darrow couldn’t help you, nobody could. In the wake of the arrests, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) held fundraisers in cities across the North – and secured the money to hire Darrow to defend the Sweet family and their co-defendants.
Initially, all eleven accused were tried together. In a courtroom, in front of a dozen white men, Darrow argued not just that the Sweets were defending their property as the law allows them to – but that they were the victims of a system stacked against them due to the colour of their skin. In his autobiography he makes mention of the fact the prosecution called up to seventy five witnesses, who all claimed they were out on the street and saw the shooting – but claimed there was no large crowd of people – just let that sink in for a while. Darrow struggled to find witnesses, due to the neighbourhood closing ranks – but made easy work of the witnesses in cross examination. With the media firmly on the side of the white mob, as well as most of Detroit’s leading citizens, Darrow still secured a hung jury.
When the case was retried – this time individually trying the Sweets (starting with Ossian’s brother Henry – the shooter, and at the time a university student), Darrow won the case – leading to the State’s attorney dropping the charges against the other defendants.
Were this a movie, this is the point where the family live happily ever after. They are released immediately. Cut to scene of a party with some hot jazz playing on the gramophone. Perhaps the white saviour lawyer is there as the guest of honour… The neighbours have learnt the foolishness of their ways, and Dr Sweet is welcomed into the community as one of their own. This was, however, real life. Once arrested, the defendants were refused bail. In the dank, miserable jail cells, Gladys Sweet caught tuberculosis – and passed away soon after – but not before she inadvertently passed the disease to their child – who also died from consumption. Ossian Sweet resumed his medical practice, but never returned to 2905 Garland Street. He never really got over the incident, or the loss of his family. Ossian Sweet sold the house in the 1950s, and feeling all too world weary, took his own life in 1960.
Though hardly the most uplifting tale, the story of Ossian Sweet is something that keeps coming back to me. Not to say he wasn’t a remarkable guy (to become a doctor requires a high level of smarts. To remain calm in the face of a raging mob incredible toughness), but I think that his experience was not uncommon makes it chilling to me. There is something of this also feels far too current for comfort.
As a final word; Clarence Darrow appealed to the better nature of the jury when he said “To me this case is a cross section of human history; it involves the future, and the hope of some of us that the future shall be better than the past”.
While in the box, Ossian Sweet also made a statement,
“I opened the door, I saw the mob and I realised I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people throughout our entire history. I was filled with a fear that only one could experience who knows the history and strivings of my race”
February 2022 is Black History Month. As a pakeha (white) New Zealander I’m far from the best person to be telling tales like this. Luckily there’s no shortage of African American historians out there – shining a light on African American history in a way I could only dream of. I found this British site covering their own Black History Month (the practice started in the USA as a week only in 1926, the UK started observing the month in 1987)
The American site, for African American History month is here, and has several other sites which observe the month in their about section.