Interviews

Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice

In 1925, Detroit was a smoky swirl of jazz and speakeasies, assembly lines and fistfights. The advent of automobiles had brought workers from around the globe to compete for manufacturing jobs, and tensions often flared with the KKK in ascendance and violence rising. Ossian Sweet, a proud Negro doctor — the grandson of a slave — had made the long climb from the ghetto to a home of his own in a previously all-white neighborhood. Yet just after his arrival, a mob gathered outside his house in an attempt to intimidate Sweet and force him from his new home.  Rocks were thrown and shots were fired, concluding with the death of one of the white citizens outside.

And so it began — a chain of events that brought America’s greatest attorney, Clarence Darrow, into the fray and transformed Sweet into a controversial symbol of equality.  In the National Book Award winning book Arc of Justice, historian Kevin Boyle weaves the police investigation and courtroom drama of Sweet’s murder trial into an unforgettable tapestry of narrative history that documents the volatile America of the 1920s and movingly re-creates the Sweet family’s journey from slavery through the Great Migration to the middle class. Ossian Sweet’s story is an epic tale of one man trapped by the battles of his era’s changing times.#

In an April 1, 2005 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Boyle tells this powerful story that rallied blacks to raise their voices and to begin the march toward equality, dignity, and self-respect.

 

 

 

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“When I opened the door and saw the mob, I realized I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people through its entire history. In my mind I was pretty confident of what I was up against, with my back against the wall. I was filled with a peculiar fear, the fear of one who knows the history of my race.”

– Ossian Sweet

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– Listen to Jelly Roll Morton play Black Bottom Stomp

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If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot…Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

– Claude McKay, 1919

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JJM  In a blurb for your book, Pulitzer Prize winning author David Maraniss wrote of Arc of Justice, “With deep research and graceful prose, he (Boyle) has taken a single moment, the hot September day in 1925 when Ossian and Gladys Sweet moved into a bungalow on Garland Avenue in Detroit, and from that woven an amazing and unforgettable story of prejudice and justice at the dawn of America’s racial awakening.” This story truly is a benchmark in American history, yet I was surprised by how little I knew about it. Is this a common thing for you to hear?

KB  Yes, it has become one. It is a story that I knew because I grew up in Detroit, so it isn’t as if I stumbled on this in the midst of deep research and thought, “My gosh, an unknown story!” However, the huge break in writing this book was realizing that that ninety-nine percent of Americans didn’t know anything about it. I was curious about why this story isn’t part of our collective memory, and what made it disappear from history in a way so many other civil rights stories didn’t.

JJM I suppose in Detroit it has retained its proper historical significance, and at the time of the trial, it probably received national renown. It is probably pretty safe to say that kids in today’s classrooms — until the publication of your book — haven’t spent a lick of time studying it.

KB  Probably not.

JJM  What was Detroit like prior to the Northern Migration?

KB  Prior to 1910, Detroit was a sleepy, mid-level manufacturing town. It was not a huge city, especially compared to New York or Chicago — in 1900 it was the fifteenth largest city in America. With the automobile boom that began in the 1910 – 1915 period, Detroit became the ultimate American boomtown. It was the industrial version of a gold rush town, and the population skyrocketed, going from fifteenth to fourth largest city in the country in twenty years time. It was just jammed full of people on the make, which created an intense tension among its citizens.

JJM  A magazine reporter wrote of it, “Detroit is Eldorado. It is staccato American. It is shockingly dynamic.”

KB  Yes, and if you go to Detroit today, it is hard to picture that, because Detroit has been in decline for a long time now. But as you drive through the streets of Detroit, use your imagination and you can see its boomtown appeal, and a place that was just jam full of people and ambition and money. It was out of control, in a sense.

JJM How did the accomplishments of blacks during the Jazz Age change the way northern whites viewed them?

KB  There are many changes, and they cut two ways. This was the era of the Harlem Renaissance, and the tremendous accomplishments of African Americans in the arts and in politics forced whites to confront their long-standing sense of white supremacy. How could white supremacy be true when African Americans were competing better than whites on so many levels? At the same time, it was the movement of African Americans out of the South and into places like Detroit or Chicago that dramatically accelerated the segregation of northern cities. So, there was a breaking down of a cultural wall between black America and white America simultaneous to a geographic wall going up between them.

JJM  Which basically triggered a northern version of Jim Crow…

KB  That is exactly what happened. The North embraced its own version of Jim Crow throughout its big cities. It was different from the South — there were no separate drinking fountains, no black and white waiting rooms at the bus stations — but it was just as powerful a form of Jim Crow based on the bedrock of it, which was neighborhood segregation.

JJM  Neighborhood segregation and the triggering of a northern version of Jim Crow couldn’t have happened without whites feeling a lot of fear. What sort of fears did the white community express or face?

KB  It was a whole complex of things. On the one hand, there were the long-standing white stereotypical fears and assumptions about black Americans — that black men were dangerous, prone to crime, and prone to sexual violence. At the same time, whites felt that the mere presence of blacks undermined the status of the white world, which was really the key to the Jim Crow North. These white American mind-sets then got linked up with the economics of urban America — particularly the economics of the housing market that make segregation so powerful.

JJM It created a bright opportunity for the Ku Klux Klan to make its presence felt. You wrote that in the Detroit of 1924, the Klan had thirty-five thousand members.

KB  Yes, that is members. When you start thinking of the number of fellow travelers, who are the people who didn’t pay the money but accepted the ideas, it is a staggering number — as if thirty-five thousand wasn’t bad enough. Right after World War I, the KKK was able to sweep out of the South by expanding its hatred. Of course it was anti-black, as it had always been, but the Klan was also anti-Catholic, and because Detroit was an immigrant city, with the great growth coming from the peoples of southern Europe, it was also an overwhelmingly Catholic city. The Klan was also anti-Semitic, and there was a substantial Jewish population in Detroit. It was anti-immigrant, and as I said, Detroit was an immigrant city, as were so many other big cities in the twenties. Because the embattled white Anglo-Saxon protestant group felt as if it were being engulfed by these newcomers, the Klan was able to build its membership based on their multiple hatreds.

JJM Did Henry Ford’s extremism help feed this attitude?

KB  Oh, absolutely. It is a little hard to picture these days, but Henry Ford was Detroit. When people came to Detroit, they didn’t do so in order to work for General Motors, they came because that was where “Mr. Ford” was. He symbolized Detroit, and he did it in the industrial sense. By the twenties, the Ford Motor Company wasn’t even the largest automobile company in the country — it was second behind General Motors — but Henry Ford still symbolized that industry. He also symbolized its hatreds. Ford was a man of multiple hatreds, foremost for him being anti-Semitism. The weekly newspaper he published, the Dearborn Independent, had massive distribution around the country, and it was filled with hatred. It was not a Klan newspaper, but it was full of rhetoric against blacks and the “Jewish menace.”

JJM  What sorts of jobs were available to the black citizens of Detroit in the mid-twenties?

KB  That was an interesting dynamic, because it was a spotty sort of thing. There was no absolute rule in the job market in Detroit. It wasn’t as if blacks could work over here, but not over there. But, by and large, there was a basic rule that operated in short order with the dramatic growth of the black population, and that is that black men could get the worst paying, most dangerous jobs in the automobile industry. They could work in certain places in the auto industry, and they were largely jobs whites preferred not having. But the kind of work available to blacks varied from plant to plant. Some employers had more of this kind of work, others less, and many none at all. It was just a weird kind of hodge-podge of discrimination, which made life for African Americans really hard, because they never knew exactly where the line was drawn — it might be drawn differently in every plant. Consequently, life was really dangerous all the time, because they were not sure what it was they could or couldn’t do, or where they could or couldn’t go.

JJM You wrote of Ossian Sweet, “Dr. Sweet was no boy. He was a professional man, better educated, wealthier, more accomplished than most of the whites he encountered. He wanted others to know it the moment they saw him.” Can you talk a little about how Sweet’s background led him to having the courage to buy a house in Detroit’s all-white Garland Avenue neighborhood?

KB  It is really a classic American story. He was a black man who came from a very humble background — his grandparents were slaves and his parents were the farmers of a small plot of land in central Florida. But what they had and what they gave to their children — Ossian being the oldest in a large family — was a driving ambition, and a commitment to education, hard work, and success. Ossian was very much an obedient son, and he learned that lesson well.

His parents were devout members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and when he was thirteen, his parents sent him off to the traditional black college in Ohio connected to it, Wilberforce University. He got a high school diploma and a college degree, and that alone set him higher on the educational level than virtually any American — black or white — because very few people went to college in the 1910’s. But that wasn’t enough for Sweet, as he also attended medical school at Howard University in Washington D.C. So he was an example of the classic American success story, a young man of humble origins rising to the very top of the professional ladder.

As it is for many in this kind of situation, his whole transformation was accompanied with a sense that he deserved the best, and that he deserved what he could get. Dr. Sweet was a man who didn’t mind showing off his successes and his accomplishments.   And the decision to buy that house was in large part because he didn’t want to live in the poor neighborhood, where most African Americans were expected to live. He wanted a nice house in a better, safer neighborhood for he and his young family, and that is what brought him to Garland Avenue. It was not a spectacular area — certainly not the best in Detroit — but he was moving to a good, solid neighborhood right across from a grade school, so when his baby daughter got older, they could walk across the street with her. The house was the nicest house on the block, and even when you drive there today, it will hit you immediately it is still the nicest house on the block. That is one of the things that attracted him to it.

JJM  And he was married to a woman, Gladys Sweet, who was quite adamant about wanting to live there. You write, “You work in the ghetto, she told him, but we don’t need to live there. We have a perfect right to live anywhere we please.” She was clearly someone who wanted the best for her family and felt they had the right to live wherever they wanted to live.

KB  A fascinating and important part of this story is that Gladys, who was also African American, grew up in an almost completely white neighborhood . It wasn’t all that unusual at the time of her childhood for an African American middle class family to live in an otherwise all white neighborhood. With this experience, Mrs. Sweet felt there was absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t move into this Garland Avenue house, which was only one mile south from her parents’ home. Moving into it was the most obvious thing in the world to her. Ossian was different. Where he grew up — in the Jim Crow South — there was a black side of town and a white side of town, and he lived on the black side of town. So he had a different understanding of that dynamic than she did.

JJM  Well, he may have been more cognizant of a “racial etiquette” as a result of his childhood experience.

KB Yes, I think that is a great way of putting it.

JJM  It was quite important to Dr. Sweet to be recognized as part of what W.E.B. DuBois called “The Talented Tenth.” You can hardly blame him for wanting to be part of that, and it seemed as though he consistently acted with that goal in mind.

KB  As I mentioned earlier, Sweet was a man from an ordinary background, but his entire educational process were at these historic black colleges rooted in the premise that the race would be led by its educated men, which is what DuBois really meant by the “Talented Tenth.” Dr. Sweet wanted to earn a place in that “Talented Tenth.” It was a great ambition, the sort that would be applauded if one were white; whereas in a black person, this ambition brought terrible tragedy.

JJM  Dr. Sweet said, “If I had known how bitter that neighborhood was going to be, I wouldn’t have taken that house as a gift.” Did Dr. Sweet have complete knowledge of the neighborhood he was about to move into? Did he understand the dangers of living there?

KB  The simple answer is “No,” but of course we never stop with a simple answer. Timing was very critical with this story. He bought the house in early June of 1925, and he was a little worried because of who he was and because of what background he brought with him. He knew there was a danger in crossing the color line, and the day he signed the papers to buy the house, he asked the owners he bought it from, “Is this a Klan neighborhood?” So it was obviously on his mind. The woman said that it wasn’t a Klan neighborhood, and I think she was right about that. So while he was nervous about moving in, he wasn’t so nervous to prevent himself from going through with the transaction.

Almost immediately after he made the down payment on the house, and during the time he was waiting for the previous owners to move out, a whole series of violent events surrounding African American families moving into all-white neighborhoods were occurring on the other side of Detroit. These families were attacked by huge, raging mobs of whites immediately after moving in, and the incidents became front-page stories in the Detroit papers. Dr. Sweet knew two of the victims personally — one of whom was a doctor. When that happened, Dr. Sweet’s terror really kicks in, because he assumed that if that could happen over on the other side of town, it could happen to him as well. A process of growing fear sets in that began with nervousness, and moves to terror as he was waiting for moving-in day to arrive.