Ossian Sweet: defended his family against a white mob attempting to force them out of the neighborhood


Ossian Sweet
Ossian Sweet.gif
Born October 30, 1895
Bartow, Florida, USA
Died March 20, 1960 (aged 64)
DetroitMichigan, USA
Fields Internal medicine
Institutions Dunbar Hospital
Alma mater Howard University
Wilberforce University


Ossian Sweet (/ˈɒʃən ˈswiːt/;[2] October 30, 1895 – March 20, 1960) was an American physician. He is most notable for his self-defense in 1925 of his newly purchased home in a white neighborhood against a mob attempting to force him out of the neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan, and the subsequent acquittal by an all-white jury of murder charges against him, his family, and friends who helped defend his home, in what came to be known as the Sweet Trials.

Early years

Sweet was born the second son to Henry Sweet and Dora Devaughn in Bartow, Florida just eight days before the death of his oldest brother, Oscar.[1] Henry Sweet was a former slave from Florida and was able to buy land in Bartow in 1898, where he moved his entire family. There they lived in a small farmhouse and all the children helped with the farm animals and in the fields. The Sweets had a total of ten children living in cramped quarters and living on the little money they could earn through their farm. At age five, Ossian allegedly witnessed thelynching of a black male teenager Fred Rochelle (Ossian made this claim of witnessing the lynching while on the witness stand in his murder trial in Detroit in 1925). Fred Rochelle, captured by black males and turned over to the sheriff, admitted to attacking and murdering a white female, 26-year-old Mrs. Rena Smith Taggart, with a butcher knife in an apparent rape attempt. Ossian, who was, according to his story, out alone at night and a mile or more from his home, claimed he watched from the bushes as Fred Rochelle was burned at the stake. “He’d recount it with frightening specificity: the smell of the kerosene, Rochelle’s screams as he was engulfed in flames, the crowd’s picking off pieces of charred flesh to take home as souvenirs.”


In September 1909, Sweet left Florida at age thirteen. Sweet’s parents had taught him everything they could, instilling in him religious traditions that had sustained the family through generations of struggle. That is why they wanted Ossian to go North and get an education. He was sent to Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. Wilberforce University was one of few African-American colleges of that time and was funded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Wilberforce is where Ossian became a charter member of the Delta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi and was where he earned a Bachelors of Science at the age of twenty-five. He would attend Wilberforce for eight years; the first four of which were spent in prep-school studying Latin, history, mathematics, English, music, drawing, philosophy, social and introductory science and foreign language (probably French). Sweet took work shoveling snow, stoking furnaces, washing dirty dishes, waiting tables, and carting luggage up hotel stairs to pay the US $118 for his tuition and books. From Wilberforce University, Ossian attended Howard University in Washington D.C. where he earned his medical accreditation.

Throughout Sweet’s early life he demonstrated a very clear dedication to school and overcoming the life of a Southern black. Sweet’s parents were one of many families to suffer the tough goodbyes of sending young children away to be educated, but the hope that Ossian would be presented with opportunities not available in the South as well as the possibility of Ossian escaping the horrible things he had witnessed in Bartow, led his parents to this decision. Sweet became the leader in his family and paved the way for his younger siblings to work hard and become educated as well. One of the most pressing impacts of his experience at Wilberforce, and later at Howard, was his growing knowledge and goal to be recognized as part of the Talented Tenth. In his later life, Sweet would see his ambition to join the “Talented Tenth” vindicated when W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about Sweet’s case and held him up as an example for young African-American men to follow.[3]

Red Summer

Ossian Sweet was attending Howard University, a leader in black medical education, in 1919 when he witnessed the Washington D.C. race riot. Like so many cities in the summer of 1919, D.C. had been stretched to its breaking point. Black migrants from the south had come pouring into the city’s main black areas with the promise of wartime jobs, but in 1919 with the end of the war the promise was no longer there, although new migrants were pouring into the city everyday. Thousands of white soldiers were held on the outskirts ofWashington D.C. while waiting to be discharged from their service in the World War I. Boredom eventually hit; and when it did, a riot broke that lasted five days and left 6 dead and 150 wounded. Sweet was just four blocks from the riots, but could not leave his fraternity; Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, attributes his lack of composure in this harsh time to fear, and he had good reason. Sweet was “walking down the street when a gang descended on a passing streetcar, pulled a black passenger down to the sidewalk, and beat him mercilessly.” Boyle later states that Sweet did not venture from his house because he was escaping the memories of his past, a true emotion for Sweet, and one that would not leave him until his death.

Detroit and Black Bottom

With little money, Ossian arrived in Detroit in the late summer of 1921, a time of speakeasies, jazz music, liquor, and slumming. It was also a time when drugs, gambling, and prostitution swept the city. According to Kevin Boyle, in 1910 Detroit was on its way to become an industrial powerhouse. A booming modern metropolis paved the way for the growth of the auto industry; around 1913, the pull for jobs on the assembly lines fueled enormous migration to Detroit. In 1910, the population of Detroit was approximately 485,000; by 1920 it had more than doubled. As migration increased, so did segregation.

“Despite its name, Black Bottom wasn’t really a colored area. Most of its residents were immigrants, not negroes,” states Boyle. Black Bottom was a neighborhood of the poor working-class people of Detroit. Boyle describes Black Bottom in his book as dingy and rundown, with rooms barely large enough to accommodate families. Homes in central Black Bottom were decaying. When it rained, water would flood through the ceilings, wind came through holes in the walls where the plaster had cracked off, and many of the windows had no glass. Boyle gives evidence that with discrimination in the real estate market, agents sometimes refused to even show homes in white neighborhoods, for they feared black occupancy would bring down property values. This kept migrants primarily in Black Bottom. With no place else to go, Black Bottom remained the home of the poor working class and landlords saw no need to make improvements to living quarters. The poor living conditions led to the constant threat of infection and spread of disease, and many died of smallpox, pneumonia, and syphilis. In the 1960s, Black Bottom was demolished during the city’s urban renewal program. “Black Bottom” also became the name of a popular dance in the Florida/New Orleans areas between 1926-27. It was performed at the Apollo Theater and was modeled after young black children’s imitations of cows stuck in the mud.


Even with his extensive medical knowledge, Sweet encountered difficulty finding work at a hospital due to his race, but his summers waiting at Detroit restaurants instilled him with the knowledge of Black Bottom’s need for medical care. Black Bottom was an overpopulated black ghetto in which migrant workers from the South made their homes during the Great Migration. These proto ghettos were extremely poor areas, being unsanitary with few sources of water, not to mention that they were mainly built in places that were environmentally unhealthy. Overpopulation and the steady influx of migrants, who lacked medical care amid cramped quarters, caused diseases and created imminent threats to life. According to Kevin Boyle in Arc of Justice, “rudimentary care could have saved some of them. But Black Bottom didn’t get even that.” Sweet saw this as an opportunity to practice his medicine. He gave US$100 to a pharmacy, “Palace Drugs”, in exchange for office space. His first client, Elizabeth Riley, feared she had contracted tetanus because her jaw grew stiff. Sweet was able to diagnose that it was not an infection, but rather simply a dislocated jaw. He reset the bone which spread good publicity about his practice throughout the neighborhood. His list of patients grew, and “Ossian was named amedical examiner for Liberty Life Insurance, an appointment that assured him a steady stream of patients he might not have otherwise have acquired.” According to Boyle, Sweet earned the respect of his colleagues at Dunbar Memorial.

Personal life

Sweet married Gladys Mitchell in 1922. She was born in Pittsburgh and had been raised in Detroit, a few miles north of Garland, and came from a prominent middle class black family. Recognizing a need for further medical training, Sweet left his practice to study in Vienna and Paris in 1923. Although he did not receive a degree, Sweet furthered his education by attending lectures given by noted physicians and scientists, including Madame Curie. In non-segregated Paris, he and his wife were also treated as equals to Caucasians. His only experience with prejudice while in Europe was at the American Hospital in which he donated a relatively large amount of money, 300 francs, given his finances. When seeking to reserve space for his wife to deliver their baby, the American Hospital refused on the grounds that the white Americans in the hospital did not want to be mixed with black patients. On May 29, 1924, Gladys gave birth to Marguerite, who they later called Iva. The thought that the American Hospital had “imperiled the health, and perhaps the life of Gladys and Iva” infuriated him, and reminded Sweet of the world to which he would return.

By June 21, 1924, the Sweets returned to Detroit and Ossian began working at Dunbar Hospital, Detroit’s first black hospital. Having saved enough money, he moved his family in 1925 from his wife’s parents home in an all-white neighborhood, to 2905 Garland Street, another all-white neighborhood at Garland and Charlevoix. Sweet was aware of the neighborhood’s prejudice and of the probable danger he would encounter in purchasing the house, but liked it not only because of its appearance and size, but for what the house represented. Most African Americans lived in Black Bottom, but those who prospered moved to better neighborhoods, which is what Sweet wanted for his own family. Also, he felt he could not back down from buying the home because theNational Association for the Advancement of Colored People had just been revived after two years of inactivity in Detroit. This meant that there was more of a push against the color line, to not surrender to it at that particular time. The Ossian H. Sweet House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

File:Ossian Sweet House Detroit MI.jpg

Ossian H. Sweet House at 2905 Garland.



Garland Avenue bungalow

Upon his return to Detroit in 1924, Ossian started work at Dunbar Hospital, Detroit’s first black hospital. Because of his training in France, Ossian was more educated than most white men. A young professional of Ossian’s status should have had no trouble finding a respectable home in a respectable neighborhood, but unfortunately the Sweets’ race played a large role in their house hunting. The Sweets had a difficult time trying to find a realtor who would represent them and, when they finally did, they had an even more difficult time finding a family who would sell them a house. According to Kevin Boyle’s account of the Sweets’ first impression of the Garland house, the Sweets were less than impressed. The area was a “workingman’s” area filled with modest houses and two-family flats, but the location was ideal. It was close to Ossian’s office and to Gladys’s parents’ home. The owners of the home saw the Sweets as an opportunity to make more than the bungalow would have brought if sold to a white family. On June 7, 1925, the Sweets bought the house for US$18,500, about US$6,000 more than the house’s fair market value. The Sweets moved into the house on September 8, 1925.

Home invasion

There were dangerous occurrences happening to friends and acquaintances of Ossian in buying homes in white neighborhoods and then being attacked. There was even a group put together called the Waterworks Park Improvement Association, which happened to be run by real estate agents from Detroit and nearby cities, whose sole reason of existence was to create controversy against the idea of allowing blacks to move to white neighborhoods. These people were concerned with the belief that allowing blacks into their neighborhoods would lower property values. This was important because at this time, buying a home was a very difficult and lengthy process. The idea of buying land free and clear was no longer an option for most blacks, forcing them instead to take out multiple mortgages to buy a home, leading to even more debt. Also, the idea that an African American could afford what most were struggling to keep was insulting to many of the working class whites that lived in the neighborhood.

Fearing an attack, Ossian had nine other men at his house on the night of September 9, 1925, to help defend his family and property should any violence arise. The men included: Charles Washington (insurance man), Leonard Morse (colleague), William Davis, Henry Sweet (Ossian’s brother), John Latting (Henry’s college friend), Norris Murray (handyman), Otis Sweet (Ossian’s brother) and Joe Mack (chauffeur). Gladys, too, was inside the bungalow. Police inspector Norton Schuknecht and a detail of officers had been placed outside the Sweet’s house to keep the peace and protect Ossian and Gladys from any angry neighbors. When a hostile crowd formed for the second consecutive night in front of Dr. Sweet’s home, Sweet felt that “somewhere out there, standing among the women and children, lounging on the porches, lurking in the alleys were the men who would incite the crowd to violence.” As the crowd grew restless some, possibly children or teenagers, threw stones at the house, eventually breaking an upstairs window. Several of Dr. Sweet’s friends were waiting upstairs, armed with guns that Sweet had purchased prior to moving in. Shots were fired from upstairs, hitting two men. One of the them, Eric Houghberg was wounded in the leg. The other man, Leon Breiner, was killed. The eleven African Americans inside were later brought to police headquarters and interrogated for five hours. Interrogations would last for an extended period of time and the men would remain in the Wayne County Jail until the trial was over.


The Sweets and their friends/co-defendants were tried for murder before a young Judge, Frank Murphy. Judge Murphy was considered one of the more liberal judges in the city, but with the media working the city into a frenzy, Murphy denied the defendant’s appeal to have the case dismissed. However, Sweet and the other accused parties remained hopeful. When word of the trial reached James Weldon Johnson, general secretary of the NAACP, Johnson correctly predicted that this case would have a strong effect on the acquisition of civil rights for African Americans.

The NAACP assisted Sweet and the other accused individuals in obtaining money and support necessary to properly defend themselves in this trial. The NAACP requested that James Weldon Johnson send Walter White to assist the accused by performing investigations on their behalf. The Sweet trial was one of three main trials the NAACP supported in this year. The NAACP’s funds were limited, so they had to carefully choose in which cases to assist. They based this decision on the potential media visibility of the cases, as well as which trials, if won, would help further African Americans as a race and hopefully inspire social change.

As September passed on, life in the Wayne County Jail became slightly more comfortable for Ossian and the others. It was more difficult for jail officers to keep a close eye on them so the Sweets began seeing a steady stream of visitors, including the elder Henry Sweet, Ossian’s, Otis’s and Henry, Jr.’s father. In early October, Johnson invited Clarence Darrow, who was considered for a period of time the most brilliant defense attorney in the country, to join the Sweets’ defense team. Darrow previously had been an attorney in the Scopes Trial. Publicity was what Johnson was looking for from Darrow. Darrow accepted and on October 15 it was announced he would be taking control of the defense. Several days prior to the announcement, on October 6, Gladys was released on bail by her parents’ friends. This was a great relief for Ossian. On the morning of Friday, October 30, Clarence Darrow was ready for trial. As the end of November rolled in, and after the jurors’ long deliberations, most came to an agreement that the eight remaining defendants should be acquitted; there were, however, a few holdouts. At this point, Judge Murphy dismissed the hung jury and declared a mistrial. Dr. Sweet and Gladys had expectations to head back to court within a few weeks, but there were delays. During the long delay between the first and second trial, Darrow did not devote much time to the Sweets’ case. Almost three weeks after it was planned to begin, the trial started on Monday, April 19, 1926. This shorter trial led to anacquittal of Henry Sweet. The prosecuting attorney then elected to dismiss the charges against the remaining defendants.

Later life

After Henry was acquitted, life for the Sweets was not as joyous as hoped. Both Gladys and her daughter, Iva, were suffering from tuberculosis, which Gladys believed she had contracted during her incarceration. Two months after her second birthday, Iva died. During the two years following the loss of their daughter, Ossian and Gladys lived apart; he was back at the apartment near Dunbar Memorial and she went to Tucson, Arizona, in order to benefit from the drier climate. By mid-1928, Ossian finally regained possession of the bungalow, which had not been lived in since the shooting. A few months after Gladys returned home, she died, at the age of twenty-seven. After the death of his wife, Ossian bought the Garafalo’s Drugstore. In 1929, he left his practice to run a hospital in the heart of the ghetto. He would eventually run a few of these small hospitals, but none ever flourished. As he began to approach the age of fifty, Ossian started to buy land in East Bartow, as his father had. Finally, in 1930, he decided to run for the presidency of the NAACP branch in Detroit, only to lose by a wide margin. In the summer of 1939, Ossian realized that his brother had also contracted tuberculosis; six months later, the brother died. By this point, Ossian’s finances had failed him. It took him until 1950 to pay off the land contract and he then assumed full ownership of the bungalow. He faced too much debt after that and, instead of losing the house, Ossian sold it in April 1958, to another black family. With the bungalow out of his possession, he transformed what had been his office above Garafalo’s Drugstore into an apartment. Around this time, Ossian’s physical and mental health began to decline; he had put on weight and had slowed in his motions. On March 20, 1960, he went into his bedroom and committed suicide with a shot to the head.

Arc of Justice

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age was a best-seller written by Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Ohio State University.[6] Boyle’s book, Arc of Justice, won the National Book Award for non-fiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. On February 2, 2007, Boyle was honored after one of the performances of the play with a testimonial recognition from the city of Detroit in honoring civil rights.

Malice Aforethought: The Sweet Trials

Malice Aforethought: The Sweet Trials was a play written by Arthur Beer, a professor and performing arts co-chair of the University of Detroit Mercy, which tells the story of Ossian Sweet and the murder trial he, his family, and friends faced, commonly known as the Sweet Trials back in 1924. This play serves an important historical role not only in the history of Detroit, where the incident and trials were held, but also in the History of the United States. Initially performed in 1987, the play was recently brought back in 2007, for its 20-year anniversary.






Sweet Trials: 1925-26

Sweet Trials: 1925-26

Defendants: Ossian and Henry Sweet
Crimes Charged: Conspiracy to commit murder and murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Clarence Darrow, Arthur Garfield Hays, and Thomas Chawke
Chief Prosecutors: Robert M. Toms and Lester S. Moll
Judge: Frank Murphy
Place: Detroit, Michigan
Dates of Trials: First trial: November 1925; second trial: April-May 1926
Verdicts: First trial: Mistrial/hung jury; second trial: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The Sweet trials revealed the growing racial tension in northern and Midwestern cities following World War I, and provided a dress rehearsal for more such episodes during the Civil Rights era 30 years later.

During the First World War, thousands of African-American families moved from the south to the industrial cities of the north, such as Detroit, in search of high-paying, wartime jobs. While they found the employment that they were after, they also learned that they had not escaped the racism that they had experienced in the southern states. Northern white attitudes were hostile to the black newcomers, and northern society and neighborhoods remained closed to them. The few neighborhoods in which these African-Americans settled soon grew overcrowded and filthy.

Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black Detroit physician, moved to the city in 1924, after studying for a time in Vienna and Paris, where he had worked with Marie Curie. Having recently married and fathered a child, he wished to avoid the slums and find decent housing. By 1925, one or two black friends of his had bought homes in white neighborhoods, but they soon left in the face of white hostility. Sweet was determined not to let the same thing happen to him.

In the summer of 1925, Sweet found a house at 2905 Garland Avenue, in a lower-middle-class, white neighborhood. The sellers were a white woman and her light-skinned, black husband. Perhaps this made Sweet think that the neighbors would accept him and his family, but in reality (as events would later show) the neighbors had probably thought the husband was white. At any rate, Sweet moved in with the help of his brothers, Otis and Henry, as well as a few friends. Among his possessions were enough guns and ammunition for the entire group—just in case they were needed—when the Sweet family moved in on September 8.

Menacing Crowd Gathers

The Ku Klux Klan had been very active in the area recently. One result of this was the organization of the neighborhood Waterworks Park Improvement Association, which had formed shortly after Sweet bought the Garland Avenue house, and which was in reality a group designed to keep the neighborhood all white. The day that the Sweets moved in, a white crowd began to gather outside the house. Eventually the mob disbanded, but the following evening a new one formed. Later testimony as to its size varied, but the best evidence suggests that it consisted of a few hundred people. Among them were several police officers, who were there because Sweet had asked for police protection.

The second evening after the Sweets moved in, with Sweet and 10 others inside the house, the crowd grew restless, and some people began throwing stones and breaking windows after the arrival of Otis Sweet and William Davis, a family friend. Others yelled racial epithets. Suddenly gunfire erupted from several windows of the house. Across the street Leon Breiner fell dead, and another man suffered a leg wound. After the gunfire ended, the police burst into the house and arrested everyone inside. Within a few weeks prosecutors sought indictments against the 11 occupants for conspiracy to commit murder.

Darrow for the Defense

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) soon turned to Clarence Darrow for help. At the time Darrow was perhaps the nation’s most celebrated attorney. Darrow, long a champion of the underdog, agreed to take the case. The first trial took place in the Detroit Recorder’s Court in November 1925. The judge was the liberal and humanitarian Frank Murphy, who later became an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. The chief prosecutor was Robert M. Toms, whom Darrow afterward described as “one of the fairest and most humane prosecutors that I ever met.”

The facts of the case were unfavorable for the defendants. The crowd had been restless and abusive, yes, but no one had tried to enter Sweet’s house forcibly, so under Michigan law, self-defense would nor be easy to prove. That the gunfire seemed to come in a volley, as if prearranged, indicated provocation on the part of those inside, rather than self-defense. Breiner had been shot in the back, so he himself could not have been an aggressor.

On the other hand, the prosecutors’ case wasn’t all that cut and dried, either, and it was mismanaged. Toms called a large number of witnesses, all of them white, to show that the “crowd” was really quite small. However, Darrow’s incisive cross-examination revealed that the police had coached some, and perhaps most (if not all), of the witnesses to say this. Darrow also attacked the prosecution for relying upon the theory of conspiracy to commit murder, which the prosecution had to do since it could not prove who in the house had fired the fatal shot, much less show who had fired at all. Darrow once called conspiracy “the favorite weapon of every tyrant … an effort to punish the crime of thought.”

Darrow, despite the restrictive Michigan definition, used the argument of self-defense to explain what had happened that night. Calling upon Ossian Sweet himself to tell his story, Darrow tried to make this case symbolic of earlier black persecution.

“When I saw that mob,” Sweet said, “I realized in a way that I was facing that same mob that had hounded my people through its entire history. I realized my back was against the wall and I was filled with a particular type of fear—the fear of one who knows the history of my race.”

After deliberating for three days, the all-white jury announced that it could not reach a verdict, and Murphy declared a mistrial. Five months later, in April 1926, Toms indicted Henry Sweet, who finally admitted to firing a gun, bringing him to trial a second time for murder. Judge Murphy again presided, and both Toms and Darrow used much the same litigation tactics that they had employed in the first trial. This time, Sweet was acquitted, and the following July Toms moved to dismiss the charges against all of the other defendants.

Although Darrow had argued more famous cases, he considered the Sweet trials to be his greatest personal triumph. The issues brought forth in these trials presaged the growing racial tensions throughout the country that would eventually give rise to the Civil Rights movement.

Buckner F. Melton, Jr.


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