WHEN HOUSING SEGREGATION WAS BORN: BOOK DETAILS MURDER CASE THAT SPARKED CIVIL RIGHTS BATTLE
COLUMBUS, Ohio – When Americans think about the Civil Rights era, they tend to think about the 1950s and 60s and the dramatic events in the South.
But in a new book, an Ohio State University historian sheds light on a key civil rights case that occurred decades before in Detroit, in the heart of the industrial north.
The book, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (Henry Holt, 2004), tells the story of a black doctor and his wife who moved into a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925.
Just days after moving in, the doctor, his family and several acquaintances were confronted by an angry white mob who gathered outside the house and threw rocks, shattering windows. One of the terrified occupants fired a rifle into the crowd, killing one man and injuring another.
What followed was two dramatic court cases involving legendary attorney Clarence Darrow, cases that highlighted the early fight against housing segregation, and the right of blacks to protect their property.
“When people discuss civil rights, they don’t talk much about what happened in the North, and they don’t talk about what was going on in the 1920s and 30s,” said Kevin Boyle, author of the book and associate professor of history at Ohio State.
“But the fight for civil rights went on in the North as well as the South, and it runs across the 20th century. I wanted to explore a civil rights case that doesn’t get much attention.”
Boyle, who is a native of Detroit, said this case gets some notice in the Detroit area, but he wanted to bring it wider attention and explore some of the wider ramifications of what happened back in 1925.
The story involves Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black physician who moved to Detroit after growing up in Florida, graduating from Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio and receiving his medical degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. He arrived in Detroit in 1921, married a woman named Gladys Mitchell, and practiced medicine in a ghetto neighborhood named Black Bottom.
But Sweet was a proud and ambitious man, Boyle said, and wanted to move into a nicer home. That meant he would have to move to a white neighborhood. He bought a home on Garland Avenue, and immediately got the attention of the white residents.
Everyone, including Sweet, knew there was a potential for trouble. The Detroit police stationed officers in front of Sweet’s bungalow when he moved in. Still, Sweet was fearful and invited friends and acquaintances to stay with his family the first few nights – and stocked the house with several firearms.
On Sept. 9, 1925, Sweet’s worst fears were realized when several hundred white residents gathered outside his house. At some point, people in the mob began throwing rocks, shattering windows in the house. Several shots were fired from the house, killing one man and wounding another.
Such violence was not unheard of when blacks moved into white neighborhoods during this time period, Boyle said. But the NAACP in New York was looking for a case that would allow them to highlight the threat of growing housing segregation in northern American cities. They found that case in the story of Dr. Ossian Sweet.
“It started out as a local story, but the context was explosive,” Boyle said. “The NAACP and others saw this case as symbolic of national issues.”
Because of the importance of the case, the NAACP was able to get Clarence Darrow – just months after the famous Scopes monkey trial – to defend Sweet and the 10 others who were in the house that night. The first trial ended in a hung jury. In a second trial, the defendants were acquitted.
While Sweet was victorious in court, any joy he felt was short-lived. His wife died shortly afterwards of tuberculosis, which she may have contracted while in jail. Sweet lived in his bungalow on Garland Avenue for more than 20 years, until financial troubles forced him to move back to the ghetto. He committed suicide in 1960, just as the civil rights movement was beginning to sweep the South.
The case had mixed results for the NAACP, Boyle said. Despite its legal victory, the organization was not successful in stopping the spread of housing segregation. But fundraising for this case did spur the creation of the NAACP’s influential Legal Defense Fund, which would later be used in many critical cases, including Brown vs. Board of Education.
While it would be easy to see Sweet as a civil rights hero, Boyle said that wasn’t the doctor’s aim.
“Dr. Sweet wasn’t a crusader. He didn’t want to battle for his race. The simple truth was that he found a house he could buy and he wanted to move in. There was nothing deep and complicated about it.”
By the same token, it isn’t easy to pigeonhole Sweet’s white neighbors who were so opposed to him and his family moving in, Boyle said.
While their actions were undeniably racist, they were not members of the Ku Klux Klan and they were not driven solely by hate. The neighbors, most of whom were working class or lower-end white-collar workers, struggled financially to meet their mortgages. There was a real threat that their property values would decline dramatically if a black family moved into the neighborhood.
“They were scared for a lot of racist reasons and economic reasons that got all tangled up together,” he said. “If we make them into Klansmen – which they were not – it is too easy to dismiss them. But they were ordinary people, and that’s what makes this story even more poignant.”
And the fact that housing segregation would continue and even grow in the United States for years, despite the legal and public relations victory, meant that there wasn’t a happy ending for anyone, Boyle said. In fact, he points out, the 2000 U.S. Census showed Detroit is still the second-most segregated city in the country, right behind Milwaukee.
“The problem that black leaders highlighted with the Sweet case in 1925 is still with us today,” Boyle said.
“Housing segregation is so common today that it may almost seem natural to many people. But it wasn’t always that way. There was a moment in time when segregation was created, and people fought against it. And this story is about that moment in time.”