Monday, September 28, 2009

Milestone Monday: Life and Legacy of Dr. Ossian Sweet

Ossian Sweet was an American physician. He is most notable for defending his home in 1925 in a predominantly white neighborhood against a mob attempting to force him out of his newly-purchased house in Detroit, Michigan, and the subsequent acquittal of murder charges, which included charges to his family and friends who helped him to defend his home, by an all-white jury, a historic event which came to be known as the Sweet Trials.

Dr. Ossian Sweet purchased this Detroit home on Garland and Charlevoix so he could bring up his daughter in good surroundings.

Early years

The importance of examining Ossian Sweet's childhood provides an understanding of the events that shaped Mr. Sweet's life. At age 6, he witnessed a lynching. He grew up in a community where most of the populace worked in the phosphate mines under near slave-like conditions: Twelve-hour days, six days a week, at one dollar a day. The repression of blacks, the shootings, and the lynchings made an indelible impression on the boy. These psychological scars persisted into his adulthood, when race riots that he witnessed added to his fears. Most importantly, these childhood events formed the basis for his defense against the murder charge that is at the core of his story.


In September 1909, Sweet left Florida at age thirteen. He was sent to Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. Wilberforce University was one of few African American colleges of that time and was funded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). From Wilberforce University, Ossian attended Howard University in Washington D.C. where he earned his medical accreditation.

Ossian Sweet was attending Howard University, a leader in black medical education, in 1919 when he personally witnessed the Washington D.C. race riot. Like so many cities in thesummer of 1910, Washington D.C. had been stretched to its breaking point. Black migrants from the south had come pouring into the city's main black areas with the promise of wartime jobs, but in 1919 with the end of the war the promise was no longer there, although new migrants were pouring into the city everyday.

Detroit & Black Bottom

Ossian arrived in Detroit in the late summer of 1921. By 1910 Detroit was reported to be 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 segregation. Black Bottom was an overpopulated black ghetto in which migrant workers from the South made their homes during the Great Migration.

"Despite its name, Black Bottom wasn't really a colored area. Most of its residents were immigrants, not Negros. Black Bottom was a neighborhood of the poor working class people of Detroit.


Even with his extensive medical knowledge, Sweet encountered difficulty finding work at a hospital due to his race, but his summers waiting at Detroit restaurants instilled him with the knowledge of Black Bottom’s need for 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 this as an opportunity to practice his medicine

Personal Life

Sweet married Gladys Mitchell in 1922. She was born in Pittsburgh and had been raised in Detroit, a few miles north of Garland, and came from a prominent middle class black family. On October 6, 1923, the newly-wed couple traveled to Europe for Mr. Sweet to continue his studies. While he did not receive a degree for his study and extended stay in Europe, it brought him the prestige he sought to further his claim of being part of the “talented tenth” of black society. His only experience with prejudice while there was at the American Hospital in which he donated a relatively large amount of money, 300 francs, given his finances. When seeking 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 Marguerite, who they later called Iva.

Garland Avenue Bungalow

Once in Detroit, Sweet started work at Dunbar Hospital, Detroit’s first black hospital. By the spring of 1925 he had saved enough to purchase a home on Garland for $18,500 with a down payment of $3,500 cash. Mr.Sweet moved his family in 1925 from his wife’s parent’s home in an all-white neighborhood, to 2905 Garland Street, another all-white neighborhood at Garland and Charlevoix. Sweet liked the house, not only because of its appearance and size, but also for what the house represented. Most African Americans lived in Black Bottom, but those who prospered moved to better neighborhoods, which is what Sweet wanted for his own family. The home was close to Ossian's office and to Gladys's parents' home. The owners of the home saw the Sweets as an opportunity to make more than the bungalow would have brought if sold to a white family. On June 7, 1925, the Sweets bought the house for US$18,500 which about US$6,000 more than the house's fair market value. The Sweets moved into the house on September 8, 1925.

Home invasion

There were dangerous occurrences happening to friends and acquaintances of Ossian in buying homes in "white" neighborhoods including being attacked. Waterworks Park Improvement, a group ran by real estate agents from Detroit and nearby cities, whose sole reason of existence was to create controversy against the notion of allowing blacks to move into white neighborhoods.

Fearing an attack, Ossian had nine other men at his house on the night of the attack to help defend his family and property should any violence arise. The men included: Charles Washington (insurance man), Leonard Morse (colleague), William Davis, Henry Sweet (Ossian's brother), John Latting (Henry's college friend), Norris Murray (handyman), Otis Sweet (Ossian's brother) and Joe Mack (chauffeur). Gladys, too, was inside the bungalow. Inspector Norton Schuknecht had been placed outside the Sweet's house on the first night and he was to keep the peace and protect Ossian and Gladys from any angry neighbors.

On the second night,"The street was a sea of humanity," Otis recalled. "The crowd was so thick you couldn't see the street or the sidewalk. Just getting to the front door was like running the gantlet. I was hit by a rock before I got inside."

At about 10 p.m. a series of shots rang out from the Sweet home. A neighbor and member of the mob, Eric Houghberg, was shot and suffered a minor injury. The other man who was hit, Leon Breiner, was killed from the shot. By the next morning, September 10, the story was on newsstands all across Detroit and throughout the country.


The NAACP promised to defend Dr. Sweet, his wife and friends and brought in Clarence Darrow, a titan of the American bar for more than three decades, as chief counsel. His assistants included Arthur Garfield Hays, one of the nation's leading liberal lawyers, and Walter M. Nelson, a Detroiter.

Presiding over the trial was a young judge named Frank Murphy, who would go on to become mayor of Detroit, governor of Michigan, U.S. Attorney General and a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Afterward Murphy said, "This was the greatest experience of my life. This was Clarence Darrow at his best. I will never see anything like it again."

The facts in the case were relatively simple: Someone in Dr. Sweet's house fired a shot that killed Leon Breiner. Another neighborhood resident, Erik Hofberg, received a bullet in the leg.

Judge Frank Murphy presided over the trial and, in his charge to the jury, made it clear that the right to defend one's home applied to blacks as well as whites.

Judge Frank Murphy presided over the trial and, in his charge to the jury, made it clear that the right to defend one's home applied to blacks as well as whites.

But the issue was far more complicated: Had there been justification for firing that shot?

In his book "Let Freedom Ring," defense attorney Hays left a graphic memoir of the case. "Colored people regarded the case as one which raised the definite question of race segregation. The claim was made that the shots were fired in defense of the home. It was pointed out that in Detroit, the Negro population had vastly increased in numbers; that Negro districts had become congested and were centers of filth and squalor; that it was almost impossible for a Negro to obtain a decent home except in a white neighborhood; that the whites were always hostile and the colored man was ordinarily either compelled to move or to use force to protect himself."

A Detroit News reporter, Philip A. Adler, testified for the defense. He was at the scene of the shooting and told of a "considerable mob" of between "400 and 500," and stones hitting the house "like hail."

"I heard someone say, 'A Negro family has moved in here and we're going to get them out'," Adler testified. "I asked a policeman what the trouble was and he told me it was none of my business."

The defense hammered hard at the purpose of the Water Works Improvement Association and its goal to keep blacks out. In 1925 the Ku Klux Klan claimed 100,000 members in Detroit and a cross had recently been burned at the steps of city hall.

Darrow's key question to Sweet during the trial: "What was your state of mind at the time of the shooting?"

Sweet replied, "When I opened the door and saw the mob, I realized I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people throughout its entire history. In my mind I was pretty confident of what I was up against. I had my back against the wall. I was filled with a peculiar fear, the fear of one who knows the history of my race. I knew what mobs had done to my people before."

In his charge to the jury Judge Murphy indicated clearly his belief that a man's home is his castle and that no one has a right to invade it. He left no question of the right to shoot when one has reasonable grounds to fear that his life or property is in danger. And he made it clear that these rights belong to blacks as well as to whites.

The jury deliberated for 46 hours, then announced that it had been unable to reach a verdict. The prosecution was not ready to give up, and elected to press charges against a single defendent, Henry Sweet, the 21-year-old brother of Ossian. The state believed he fired the shot that killed Leon Breiner. The second trial in many ways was parallel to the first.

The jury found Henry Sweet innocent after less than four hours deliberation. No further effort was made to prosecute any of the defendants. After all charges were dropped against him, Ossian Sweet moved back into his home on Garland.

The Aftermath

After Henry was acquitted, life for the Sweets was not as joyous as hoped. Both Gladys and her daughter, Iva, were suffering from tuberculosis, which Gladys contracted during her incarceration. Two months after Iva turned two, she died. The two years following this occurrence, Ossian and Gladys lived apart from one another; he was back at the apartment near Dunbar Memorial and she was in Tucson, trying to recover from tuberculosis in a drier climate.

By mid 1928, Ossian finally regained possession of the bungalow, which had not been lived in since the shooting. A few months after Gladys returned home, she died, at the age of twenty-seven. After the death of his wife, Ossian bought the 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, Ossian started to buy land in East Bartow, where his father had first bought land. Finally, in 1930, he decided to run for the presidency of the NAACP branch in Detroit, he lost by a wide margin.

Unfortunately, in the summer of 1939, Ossian realized that his brother had contracted the same horrible disease that had taken the life of his wife and daughter, tuberculosis. Six months later, Ossian's brother died. By this point, Ossian's finances soon failed him. It took him until 1950 to pay off the land contract and he then assumed full ownership of the bungalow. He faced too much debt after that and, instead of losing the house, Ossian sold it in April 1958, to another black family. With the bungalow out of his possession, he transformed what had been his office above Garafalo's Drugstore into an apartment. Around this time, Ossian's physical and mental health began to decline; he had put on weight and had slowed down in his motions. The man that once displayed maturity and strength now seemed bitter and dark. On March 20, 1960, he went into his bedroom and committed suicide with a shot to the head.

Malice Aforethought: The Sweet Trials is a play written by Arthur Beer, a professor and performing arts co-chair of the University of Detroit Mercy, which tells the story of Ossian Sweet and the murder trial he, his family, and friends faced, commonly known as the Sweet Trials back in 1924.

This play serves an important historical role not only in the history of Detroit, where the incident and trials were held, but also in the History of the United States, since it was the first trial where any African American was acquitted of murder. Initially performed in 1987, the play was recently brought back in 2007, for its 20 year anniversary. The play offers a truly unique experience allowing guests to observe and “re-live” a trial of tribulations in which the Sweets and friends faced over 80 years ago.

The Sweet home as it looks today.

(This story was compiled using clips and photo files of the Detroit News. )

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