Dr. Ossian Sweet, Who Defended His Home Against A Raging Mob
There is a Twitter group reading “White Rage” by Carol Anderson for #ClearTheAir, a dedicated group of educators exploring the meaning of whiteness for teaching and learning, and undoing its most pernicious effects in school systems.
This is the story of Ossian Sweet, who stood his ground in his own home, bought with his own money, where he lived in Detroit. Dr. Sweet was a physician, born in Florida, who migrated north, as many Black people did, seeking gainful employment, between 1915 and 1940.
This is the story of Ossian Sweet, whose only crime was to buy a house in a “white neighbourhood” in Detroit.
As Chuck D rapped, “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”, and indeed, Dr. Sweet is not on any stamps, but the house where this all happened is now a historic site.
Dr. Sweet bought a nice home for his family in a mostly white neighbourhood in Detroit. This was his only transgression against his neighbours: being black and buying a home, with his own money, and moving into that home. During the Great Migration, most blacks ended up in “all black” neighbourhoods due to various quasi-legal and illegal means used by whites to keep themselves separate from blacks. Indeed, southern states did all in their power, including fighting tooth and nail against the US Constitution, to keep southern blacks in their place: arresting agents who were giving away train tickets, creating new laws, and even stopping trains heading North. No way were the white landowners going to work their own land, themselves.
They needed Jim Crow for that. They needed compliant labour for that. Nonetheless, the Great Migration proceeded, spurred by the promise of living wages. Detroit, with its auto factories, was a huge beneficiary of northern migration.
Immediately, a “homeowners association” sprang up in Dr. Sweet’s neighbourhood, where none had been before. They resolved to force this innocent family out.
Perhaps Dr. Sweet knew there might be trouble: he was frankly armed to the teeth inside his home, with a few rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteed Dr. West his right to bear these arms to defend his person, family, and property.
On September 8, 1925, a crowd of hundreds of whites and eleven police officers gathered at the corner of Garland and Charlevoix. Dr. Sweet, perhaps fearing trouble would escalate, had asked three friends to join him. This was now September 9th.
The crowd started to get loud and aggressive. This angry mob wanted to drive Dr. Sweet from his home. Stones reigned down on the home, breaking some windows.
Believing his life at risk, Dr. Sweet fired from the second story window you see. Leon Breiner was killed, and Eric Hougberg was wounded. Police stormed the house and arrested all four without bail.
A concerted effort was made to lie about the order of the events at trial. The white witnesses claimed the shots came before the stones. Dr. Sweet testified that he was afraid for his life. Many white witnesses lied about the crowd size, which may have been as high as 2000. Some of the lying witnesses said there were only 15 in the crowd.
The trial ended in a hung jury.
In the second trial, Dr. Sweet was defended by Clarence Darrow. It came out that Sweet’s brother Henry had fired the shots. A childhood witnessing lynchings in Florida led to an intense fear of the angry mob. The lies told by witnesses in the first trial crumbled. The all-white jury acquitted Dr. Sweet.
Darrow felt that this trial, and the Monkey Trial, were his two greatest accomplishments in law.
You may think this story has a happy ending, but Dr. Sweet’s wife and daughter succumbed to tuberculosis soon after. He was unable to practice in hospitals due to his race. A “difficult man”, he was abandoned by the NAACP and resentful for that.
Ossian Sweet shot himself to death in 1960, in his small apartment over his pharmacy.
This was his story. You may not have heard it before, but now you should tell it to someone else. This is the untold history of America.