In 1914, Henry Ford shocked the business world by announcing that his lowest paid workers would receive the unheard-of sum of five dollars per day. This and other factors spurred the Great Migration, the movement of African-Americans from the southern states to the industrial north. Between 1910-1929, Detroit’s African-American population grew 611%.
In 1924, Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife, Gladys, returned to America from France. They settled in Detroit. In Europe, Dr. Sweet had taken advanced studies in medicine, studying from Marie Curie among others. Ossian Sweet aspired to be among the Talented Tenth, W.E.B. Du Bois’ term for the group of black professionals who would by leadership and example, improve the life for their people.
The sudden influx of African-Americans strained the housing market in Detroit. Blacks were by custom and real estate codes restricted to a few neighborhoods within the city. These neighborhoods became increasingly crowded. Tensions within the city ran high. From the pulpit, a young Detroit minister, the Anglo theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, preached against racism.
Insistent upon his right to home ownership, Ossian Sweet purchased property on Garland Avenue in an all-white neighborhood in May 1925. The house, an ordinary red-brick 1 ½ story bungalow sat behind a low picket fence. It had a broad front porch and was to be the family home. The move did not go quietly. The Waterworks Park Improvement Association formed as white residents sought to prevent blacks from moving into their neighborhoods. Crowds gathered outside the home.Aware of the opposition, the Sweets delayed their move until September. When the Sweets arrived at their new home on September 8th, they brought relatively little furniture. Dr. Sweet did, however, bring his brothers, Otis and Henry, several friends, ten guns and 400 rounds of ammunition. The Detroit police detailed officers to keep the peace.
On September 10th, 1925, for the second consecutive night, a hostile crowd formed outside the home. The night was hot. The house was besieged by racial epithets and stones. At least one window was broken. Then, someone fired a shot from a second-floor window. One man, Leon Breiner, was killed and another man wounded. Dr. Ossian Sweet, his wife Gladys, both of his brothers and the seven other residents of the house were arrested and charged with murder.
The Judge presiding over the case, Frank Murphy, went on to become a justice of the United States Supreme Court. He had a reputation for being liberal and a humanitarian.
The NAACP recruited the most famous criminal lawyer of the day, Clarence Darrow, to lead the defense. He was reportedly motivated to participate, not only because of his commitment to racial justice but also by Detroit’s proximity to Canada, a land where Prohibition did not exist. “Even before the Civil War the runaway slaves would come to Detroit, for this city was in sight of the Union Jack which was flying beyond the river, in Windsor, Canada. To the footsore slave fleeing from his master, the Union Jack was the emblem of freedom, just as it is today for the thirsty,” he said.
The Defense faced several challenges. The crowd had been angry and tense but had never tried to enter the Sweet’s house. Under Michigan law, self-defense would be difficult to prove. The gunfire reportedly came in a volley. The firearms had been stockpiled. Breiner had been shot in the back, meaning that it was unlikely that he was an aggressor.
The prosecution, however, was not without its hurdles to overcome. The seventy eyewitnesses Prosecutor Toms called, seemed to belie the government’s contention that only a small group had gathered outside and did not surround the house. Darrow also made clear through cross-examination that the witnesses had been coached to testify to the crowd’s peaceable nature. Since no one could prove who fired the shot, the government was forced to proceed on a conspiracy theory to obtain a conviction.
A trial began on October 30th, 1925 for all eleven defendants. This trial ended in a mistrial when the all-male, all-white jury was unable to reach a verdict. The retrial began on April 19th, 1926. This time, the only defendant was Henry Sweet, Ossian’s brother. The Defense had changed their tactics and demanded that the defendants be tried separately. The Prosecution chose to begin with Henry’s case. He had admitted to firing a gun, although claimed to have shot high to disperse the angry mob.
As part of the Defense case, Darrow called Dr. Ossian Sweet. The lawyer asked him to describe his state of mind. Dr. Sweet answered, “[w]hen I opened the door and saw the mob I realized I was facing the same mob that hounded my people throughout its entire history.” Through questioning, Darrow drew a picture for the white, male jury of the mindset of those inside the house. The prosecution objected to the testimony going back across Dr. Sweet’s entire life. Darrow argued that the defendant’s actions could only be understood through a psychology built upon his history. The judge sided with the Defense. Permitting this psychological “state of mind” evidence was extremely rare at the time.
In closing, Clarence Darrow asked the white men comprising the jury to become African-American.
“Now, let us look at these fellows. Here were eleven colored men, penned up in the house. Put yourselves in their place. Make yourselves colored for a little while. It won’t hurt, you can wash it off. They can’t, but you can; just make yourselves black men for a little while; long enough, gentlemen, to judge them, and before any of you would want to be judged, you would want your juror to put himself in your place. That is all I ask in this case, gentlemen. They were black, and they knew the history of the black.
The jury did, acquitting Henry Sweet. The District Attorney subsequently dropped the charges against the other defendants.
The Sweets’ story does not have a storybook ending. Gladys Sweet died of tuberculosis, a disease she believed that she contracted while in jail. Ossian Sweet committed suicide in 1960. Henry also died of tuberculosis.
The case shined a light on the stressors which made up the mindset of even successful African-Americans in the 1920’s. It upheld their rights to protect their lives and homes with force if necessary. The Arc of Justice, a 2004 book by Kevin Boyle about the events, won the National Book Award.
An ordinary red-brick house on Garland Avenue in Detroit. Curie, Du Bois, Darrow, and Murphy, some of the profound names of the Jazz Age came together in the case of Henry Sweet. The ordinary comingled with the extraordinary—the Sweet case is my Trial of the Month for April.