JJM These incidents that happened across town inspired him to act and prepare differently. He was determined not to share the same fate as that of the man he knew, Dr. Alexander Turner.
KB That’s right. He said that he was not looking for trouble, but that he would protect himself and his family. He faced this terrible decision of either going ahead with the purchase of this home, or backing down. He was tempted to back down, as Dr. Turner had in fact done. Not only did Dr. Turner back down, but he abandoned his home when it came under attack. He literally signed the deed to his brand new house over to the members of the mob, and was vilified in the black community for being a coward. Again, Dr. Sweet’s desire to be part of the “Talented Tenth” leads him to say that he will not back down, that he will not be humiliated, but that he is not going there looking for trouble either. It is a very delicate line to walk.
JJM Given all the events in Detroit leading up to this, how did the police plan to deal with a potential disturbance at Dr. Sweet’s home?
KB After the incidents over on the other side of town, members of the white community around Garland Avenue tried to organize itself in order to keep the Sweet family out. A short distance from the Sweet house, a big rally was held in the middle of the summer, in which seven hundred people came to talk about what they would do to prevent these black people from moving into their neighborhood. The police had undercover cops in the crowd and caught wind of the neighborhood’s intention. The question was, will the police defend the Sweets’ right to be in that house?
The first night that the Sweet family was in the house, a dozen cops were on the street around it, which was significant for 1925. But the Sweets knew that the police — a completely white police force filled with Klansmen — were also over on the other side of town but they didn’t do anything to halt the mob violence there. So the question for them was that while the cops were outside the house, could they be trusted? Will they do the right thing when the whites decide to attack?
JJM Of the scene outside Sweet’s house on the night of the crime, you wrote, “And there it was, the scene he’d dreaded all his life, the moment when he stood facing a sea of white faces made grotesque by unreasoned, unrestrained hate — for his race, for his people, for him.” Describe the scene outside the Sweet’s home prior to the shooting?
KB The Sweet’s home is on a corner lot, which was important because it meant that when the mob came, they would be attacking from two sides, and they had to plan for that. The incident began at about 7:30 on the evening of September 9, 1925. The Sweets, his brothers and friends — nine people total — were inside this house, waiting for an attack they felt could come at any time. They were trying desperately to keep themselves calm, so Dr. Sweet set up a card game in the living room while Mrs. Sweet made dinner for everyone. While they were playing cards, one of them looked out the window and saw that there were literally hundreds of people out on the street. They were not on the sidewalk immediately in front of Sweet’s house, because that was where the police were, and they were keeping people off of it. But, there were people everywhere else. Upon seeing this, the people in the house believed that the moment for the attack had arrived, so the men raced upstairs and grabbed guns Dr. Sweet had stashed away in a closet. They lay near or kneeled by the windows and waited.
Dr. Sweet was so terrified that when he reached for a gun he realized he couldn’t keep his hands from shaking. So he went into the front bedroom, which is a tiny little sloping room, where he lay on the bed and just waited. He waited for thirty minutes or so, and the mob continued to stand there, milling about on the lawns of the homes across the street. It is a very narrow street — if two cars are parked on it, it is difficult to get a third one to squeeze between them. Although all these people were out there, nothing had happened. Nobody was yelling or screaming or throwing anything. Then, at 8:30, Dr. Sweet’s brother Otis, the dentist in town who was supposed to be in the house to help protect it, arrived with a friend in a taxicab. The cab came rattling down the street, parked in front of Sweet’s house, they hopped out and raced to the front door. The moment the people in the mob saw two more black people enter the house, it triggered stone throwing from the crowd. Dr. Sweet rushed downstairs to open the door and let his brother into the house, and at that moment, while the rocks were hitting the house, he saw the mob. It was when he thinks to himself that this is the moment he has been terrified to think of his entire life.
The two men came into the house, and within a minute or two, the upstairs window was broken with rocks thrown by the mob, which is when the men upstairs opened fire. Two bullets hit members of the mob, one hitting the leg of a young man from across the street, and the other the back of a man — Leon Breiner — who lived down the block and had come down to be part of the mob, killing him. That is the central tragedy of the story.
JJM The police had quite a different version of the events. Police officer Norton Schuknecht told the Detroit News, “The shooting was not provoked. A small crowd was in front of the house, on both sides of the street, but no threats were made and no missiles were thrown. Suddenly an attic window was thrown up and a rifle was fired. A score or more shots followed in quick succession.” All three Detroit newspapers reported this version. Was this quickly perceived as the truth throughout the white population of Detroit?
KB The Sweets were brought down to police headquarters for interrogation, and by the morning, when the papers hit the newsstands, they were convicted in the press under the headline, “Negroes Kill White Man on the East Side.” That version of the events swept across all three major newspapers of Detroit, and the real irony of that is that by sheer coincidence, one of those newspapers had a reporter on the scene. He saw what had really happened, but his editor decided not to run the story.
JJM So, the Sweet’s defense was that they acted in self-defense, and the police retaliated by saying that there was no mob to defend against. They were very careful — as were the white witnesses — when describing how many people were outside the Sweet home.
KB It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. A terrific source of information for my book was the prosecutor’s office, which has transcripts of the interrogations of the African Americans on the night of the shooting, and the interviews of the white witnesses on the next day. In Michigan there is an official definition of a mob, which constitutes about fifteen people if they are armed, and about thirty if they are not armed but are intent on doing harm. So, there is a kind of legal threshold around this issue. The day after the shooting, the prosecutor asked the commanding police officer how many white people were around the Sweet’s house, and he responded by saying there were twelve. When you read the transcript, it is easy to hear the surprise in the prosecutor’s voice, because he basically says, “What?” It is painfully obvious that the police officers read the law. The prosecutor then asks what happened next. The officer said that he and his fellow officers rushed inside the house and arrested them, and by the time they came out, the mob had grown. The prosecutor asked him how big the crowd was at this time, and the cop said it was twenty-five. So, he hit the exact number of the size of the mob to keep it below the legal definition twice within one page of the transcript. It was absolutely remarkable.
JJM It certainly cast a wide suspicion about a conspiracy, but we are not exactly talking about a fair justice system.
KB No, not even close. The press and the police clearly decided that these people were going to go to prison for first degree murder.
JJM The good news with this case — if there was such a thing as good news — is that it opened up an opportunity for James Weldon Johnson and the NAACP to rally black Americans around.
KB That’s right. The NAACP had been watching this rise of racial segregation in the North with real fear for a few years, and they decided about a year before this that they were going to mount a major campaign against residential segregation. There was a Supreme Court case pending on the constitutionality of one of the ways that residential segregation was enforced, and they were hoping to turn this into a great crusade. The thing is, with a couple of really big exceptions, you really can’t rally people very easily around Supreme Court cases, because they tend to be a bit abstract and too technical.
The campaign wasn’t going anywhere, so throughout the summer, James Weldon Johnson scouted around for a story he could use to illustrate the problem of residential segregation, and to build his campaign around. All of a sudden, two days after the Sweets were arrested, this tiny little notice of the arrest was published in the very back pages of a New York paper that came across Johnson’s desk. As soon as he saw it, he knew it was the story he was waiting for. He decided then and there that he wanted the NAACP to come to the Sweet’s defense because he knew he had in this story — that of a black doctor and his wife trapped and defending themselves against a white mob — a way to illustrate the dangerous growth around residential segregation in the North.
JJM Besides being Johnson’s assistant, Walter White played a big role in this case, particularly through his skills as a publicist. He felt it was important to hire a high profile white attorney to defend Sweet, saying, “As even the best white sentiment of Detroit was against Sweet, the retention of an eminent white lawyer would serve to win over this alienated opinion, alienated because many white people believe the killing was unwarranted.” How did Clarence Darrow get hired for the case?
KB Blind luck. Prior to Darrow’s involvement, Johnson dispatched White to Detroit to work all the details of the trial out. While White was intent on having a white lawyer defend the Sweets, they already had three black lawyers hired to defend them. But White wanted a white lawyer partly because the jury was going to white and would require a white lawyer as front man, and partly because it was possible for this campaign to cross the color line and appeal to whites about the problems of residential segregation. As we were talking about earlier, this was the time of the Klan, and one of the appeals the NAACP wanted to make was that if the Klan were successful in their effort to segregate black people now, they would segregate Jews and Catholics next. White wanted to make whites understand that many of them were as vulnerable as blacks, and to make this trial a campaign that crossed the color line.
They set out to find a white attorney, but couldn’t find one because, despite White’s month-long attempt at putting a defense together, the case was a sure loser. The defendants were already convicted in the public opinion in Detroit, and white lawyers didn’t want to tarnish their image by being on a losing case. As it got closer to trial time, they were getting desperate because they didn’t have the lawyers they wanted. Then by sheer luck, Walter White received a letter from the counsel of the Chicago Defender, the great black newspaper, which said that he could arrange a meeting for them with Clarence Darrow. They hopped on it, and within a day or so of getting that letter, Johnson had an appointment to meet Darrow. It so happened that Darrow was in New York at that time, visiting Arthur Garfield Hays, his friend and co-counsel from the Scopes trial, which had just been held that summer. Johnson and White went to see Darrow, who decided about thirty seconds into the meeting to take the case.
JJM It seemed as if Darrow understood the importance of this case right away, He wrote, “I realized that defending Negroes, even in the north, was no boy’s job, although boys were usually given the responsibility.”
KB Yes, that truly is a Darrow line. There were a whole combination of factors that made Darrow open to Johnson and White’s appeal, but among them, two were particularly important. The first was that his parents had been part of the abolitionist generation of the 1850’s, and this case gave Darrow a chance to spout his politics; and the second was that Darrow had built an entire career around attacking the great sacred creeds of America, and this most sacred creed, white supremacy, was a target Darrow couldn’t resist attacking.
JJM What were the immediate benefits of hiring Darrow?
KB In one sense the upside is that the campaign the NAACP wanted to build around the case caught fire immediately, especially in black America. All of a sudden, the sheer publicity of having Darrow — who was at the height of his fame — brought money pouring in, which the NAACP used to help defend the Sweets. Darrow did this entire case for only five thousand dollars, so he is basically working pro bono. Within a very short period of time they raised about seventy-five thousand dollars — a huge amount of money at the time — and it became the basis for their legal defense fund, which was really the heart and soul of the organization. Another upside to his hiring is that the liberal white opinion starts to swing towards the Sweets. Stories about the case begin appearing in The Nation, for example, and it becomes something liberal whites wanted to support.
The critical question was, could Darrow actually get them off? That was an open question when Darrow signed on, because while he was a brilliant defense lawyer, the truth is that he didn’t get people off in most of his high profile cases. This had something to do with the fact that he had very tough clients to defend, of course. He defended Eugene Debs, for instance, which was his first high profile case. They lost, and Debs went to prison. He did get Big Bill Haywood off, and that built up his reputation. He didn’t get Leopold and Loeb off, although he did keep them out of the electric chair, which was in itself probably a great accomplishment. So, he always took on very tough cases to win, and as a consequence his record for getting people acquitted was not all that great.
JJM The first trial seemed virtually impossible for either side to prevail in, because eleven people were charged with one crime, and only two bullets did any damage.
KB Right, and no one could really say who shot the guns. It was a mess.
JJM It seemed destined to fail on both ends
KB Yes, it was a mess of a case for the prosecution. They put eleven people on trial at one time, they couldn’t pinpoint who fired what gun, they never found the bullet that actually killed the man, and the entire prosecution’s premise was that there was no mob outside Sweet’s home. They brought witness after witness from that neighborhood up to the stand, who said there was no mob, which of course is stupid because you couldn’t have all these people claim to be witnesses and also say they never saw a mob. This was not a case of legal logic, it was a political trial, and the prosecutor did an admirable job in not playing the race card the way he could have. Darrow and the defense’s challenge was that there were twelve white men in the jury box who needed to be convinced that it was alright for a black man to kill a white man, and that was a tough proposition. It is not surprising that the first trial ends in a hung jury.
JJM For the second trial, you wrote that Darrow “seemed convinced that he could exploit the situation in Detroit more effectively than he had in the first trial.” Why?
KB Probably because this time he got the right co-counsel. For the first trial Darrow teamed with his friend Arthur Garfield Hays, who at the time was the lead lawyer for the ACLU. While it wasn’t an ACLU case, they basically ran it as a political case, filled with great oratory and political statements. Hays couldn’t participate in the second trial, and Darrow partnered with Thomas Chawke, a criminal lawyer whose entire career was spent keeping Detroit’s mobsters out of prison. Chawke brought an edge to the defense that wasn’t there for the first trial, and the two of them together were downright mean. It is vicious the way that they attacked and humiliated the witnesses for the prosecution, who were the ordinary white people of Garland Avenue. They basically turned them into fools.
JJM One instance you write of concerned Darrow’s humiliation of a schoolteacher who couldn’t pronounce one of the neighborhood’s streets…
KB Yes, and I have got into a bit of trouble over this one myself, to tell you the truth. There is a side street that runs all the way through Detroit called “Goethe.” In Detroit, all of us pronounced it “Go-thee” Street. None of us knew who Goethe was, and no one would have pronounced it that way, and certainly most everyone on Garland Avenue would have said “Go-thee,” which is how the schoolteacher — Marjorie Stowell — pronounced it on the stand. But Darrow took that mispronunciation and made it a symbol of the stupidity of the people who lived on Garland Avenue. He asked the jury to look at the people of Garland Avenue who claimed to be better than Dr. Sweet — an educated and sophisticated man — yet who couldn’t even pronounce their own neighborhood streets correctly. It became a way for Darrow to exploit how ignorant these people really were. It is kind of painful to watch, and I flinched at this because I used to pronounce it “Go-thee” as well.
JJM In the second trial, Darrow and Chawke are defending just one man …
KB Yes. The prosecution and the defense agreed to try the defendants one at a time, so the prosecutor picks Dr. Sweet’s little brother Henry, who had been in the house and who was the only one of the defendants to have admitted firing into the crowd. Under the interrogation of the prosecutor’s office on the night of the shooting, he said something to the affect of, “Of course I fired into the crowd, they were going to kill us.” Since Henry basically admitted that he fired at somebody, the prosecutor and the defense agree that if Henry couldn’t be convicted, no one could.
JJM The case, of course, went Darrow’s way. Of Darrow’s closing argument, which went on for several hours, David Lilenthal, a reporter for The Nation wrote, “He seemed to be pleading more that the white man might be just than that the black man be free, more for the spirit of the master than the body of the slave.”
KB I loved that, and Lilenthal was exactly right. What Darrow argued for was really not so much for black rights as for white decency, which was a very critical distinction. He was really making a plea to the whites of Detroit and across the nation rather than for the African Americans.
JJM As a result of Henry’s acquittal, none of the other defendants face trial. Where did the Sweets end up living afterwards?
KB This is one of the profound tragedies in this story. Right after Henry’s trial, in 1926, Mrs. Sweet and their eighteen-month-old baby girl headed to Arizona because they had both contracted tuberculosis, and she wanted to be where the air was drier. Within a few months the baby died, but Mrs. Sweet remained in Arizona until 1928. That year, after waiting two years, Dr. Sweet finally moved back into the house on Garland Avenue, but his wife never joined him because she died that year, also of tuberculosis. So, only two years after the trial, Dr. Sweet had lost his entire family.
He lived in the house on Garland until the fifties, and by the time he left it, he was still one of only a handful of African Americans who lived in that neighborhood. Even after all this time, it remained a largely segregated neighborhood. He left the house because he had tax problems, and his finances sort of crumbled around him, and he had to move back into the little apartment above his medical practice office, which by this point was located in the inner city. By the late fifties, Sweet found himself approaching old age and living back in the black ghetto, the very place that he basically lost everything to escape in the twenties. And it is in that apartment, in March of 1960, that Sweet put a bullet in his brain, committing suicide.
JJM He really was a tragic figure in so many ways. He became known in the community and tried his hand at politics without success. His younger brother Henry actually fared better at it than he did.
KB Yes, Henry became the head of the Michigan NAACP, but he also died at a very young age of tuberculosis, so the family had this terrible degree of tragedy.
JJM You wrote that it was not “ until the cataclysmic summer of 1968 to push through federal legislation prohibiting discrimination in the selling and financing of homes. By then it was too late. Segregation had become so deeply entrenched in urban America it couldn’t be uprooted, no matter what the law said. To this day, the nation’s cities remain deeply divided, black and white neighborhoods separated by enduring discriminatory practices, racial fears and hatreds, and the casual acceptance by too many people that there is no problem to address. And of all the cities in the United States, none is more segregated than Detroit.” Given this, what was the most significant contribution this case made to the cause of racial justice?
KB That is the hardest question of all to answer. When you write about civil rights history, or about any social movement, what you would love to do is end by saying that the story being told made life better, that it addressed an important social problem, and that it solved the fundamental issue. I wanted so badly to say that. I wanted nothing more than to be able to say that Sweet, for all his sacrifices and for all the terror he endured in that house and in the courtroom, had at least helped change the situation, but I can’t. This case is filled with the most profound of tragedies, because everything was lost in the end for Dr. Sweet, and the issues he tried to confront — even if he didn’t address them for all the right reasons — were lost. Segregation of the cities wasn’t stopped, and in fact it grew more intense after 1925, and by 1935, the cities were strictly segregated. While we have made progress and the segregation of American cities is not as severe as it was in the twenties and thirties, they are still profoundly segregated. So that, in the end, is what makes this a story of bravery and courage, but also the deepest of tragedies.
JJM You can’t help but wonder what goes on in the real estate world, and how much residential segregation continues to take place.
KB Absolutely, and how much that link between racism and the marketplace exists. I can guarantee that in cities across America — and in its suburbs as well — there are still white people who will say to themselves that an African American family moving into their neighborhood will depress property values. That is the link — the exact sentiment that resulted in the segregation of the cities at the start, and it still remains.
One of the things that is so insidious and powerful about the connection between racism and the marketplace is that it forces people who aren’t themselves racist, to act like they are, and that is what makes a racial system. It is one thing if one or two people on a block are prejudiced, because you can dismiss them as jerks. But the power of the system is demonstrated when people who aren’t in fact racist, have to, because of economics, act like they are.
photo Detroit News
The twelve jurors in the Henry Sweet trial
“We feel that this is a case in which more is involved than the liberties of the eleven persons concerned; it is a case that boldly challenges the liberties, the hopes, and the aspirations of fifteen million colored Americans. If the prosecution should win, in that very act, they erect over the head of every Negro not only in this city but in every community in this country a very formidable threat of residential proscription whose consequences none of us can now predict. He would be forced to face the future with only the feeblest hope as to the positive maintenance of his inalienable right under the Constitution to live without molestation and persecution wherever he may. We feel that the prosecution realizes this and will spare no cunning in the prosecution of their dastardly program.”
– Otis Sweet, father of Ossian Sweet
Black And Tan Fantasy, by Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians
About Kevin Boyle
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
KB I have two different answers. One is a very conventional answer, which is probably the classic American boy answer — the baseball player. I grew up in Detroit, and was a huge baseball fan. I loved the game, and would lay awake at night, listening to the Tigers games on the radio. While I played baseball, I was one of those kids who couldn’t hit. So my baseball hero was the shortstop for the Tigers at the time, a guy by the name of Eddie Brinkman, who couldn’t hit at all either.
JJM I remember him. He hit about .190 one year, didn’t he?
KB Exactly, but he was a terrific fielder. So Brinkman the baseball player is my conventional answer. My other answer, which is also probably quite conventional, is my parents. I really worshipped them, and they were definitely boyhood heroes of mine. By my answers you can probably tell that I wasn’t exactly a wild, radical kid .
Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Ohio State University, is the author of The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968. A former associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, he is also the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies. He lives in Bexley, Ohio.
Praise For the Book
Dr. Ossian Sweet bought a house in a white neighborhood in 1925. Detroit exploded as a result, and a largely forgotten, yet pivotal, civil rights moment in modern American history unfolded. Kevin Boyle’s vivid, deeply researched Arc of Justice is a powerful document that reads like a Greek tragedy in black and white. The lessons in liberty and law to be learned from it are color blind.
David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of W. E. B. Du Bois
“Arc of Justice perfectly illustrates why W.E.B. Du Bois insisted that a keen sense of drama and tragedy is the ally, not the enemy, of clear-eyed historical analysis of race in U.S. history. By turns a crime story and a gripping courtroom drama, a family tale and a stirring account of resistance, an evocation of American dreams and a narration of American violence, Boyle’s study takes us to the heart of interior lives and racist social processes at a key juncture in U.S. history.
David Roediger, Babcock Professor of African American Studies and History, University of Illinois, author of Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past
What a powerful and beautiful book! Kevin Boyle has done a great service to history with Arc of Justice. With deep research and graceful prose, he 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.
David Maraniss, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of They Marched Into Sunlight and When Pride Still Mattered
There are many hidden and semi-hidden and half-forgotten markers of the civil rights movement. Kevin Boyle’s careful, detailed study of a 1925 murder trial in Detroit is one such precursing marker. Arc of Justice is a necessary contribution to what seems like an insoluble moral dilemma: race in America.
Paul Hendrickson, author of Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy
A welcome book on an important case. In Kevin Boyles evocative account, the civil rights saga of Gladys and Ossian Sweet finally has the home it has long deserved.
Philip Dray, author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America
Kevin Boyle products at Amazon.com
This interview took place on February 4, 2005
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our conversation with Bayard Rustin biographer John D’Emilio.
# Text from publisher.