The Sweet Trials
I have a list of cases that I intend to blog about. Depending on my mood I am either sitting in front of my computer researching a case or composing a blog based on my notes. The list tends to grow based on tidbits of information I hear from different references. I have a few already done, mostly smaller cases and when I am ready to compose them I will. However, from time to time a case comes along that I have a huge urge to put my thoughts down almost immediately... such is the case known as The Sweet Trials.
While researching this case I am reminded how glad I am that I was born in the decade that I was (the 1970's). I have lived in a small, predominately white town, for the last 10 years but I was raised in the inner city. The high school that I graduated from was a predominately black high school. The town I live in is not far from where I grew up so we still receive their local news if we would like. I remember not long after moving here I was working at a nursing home and one morning a story about my high school was on the news and I mentioned that I had gone there. An older lady who was visiting with her husband made the comment "Oh my! How were you able to do that?" I was totally taken aback by the comment and it severely angered me. I sometimes try to remind myself that I came from the first generation to emerge after the ruling of Brown vs. The Board of Education and I personally have known no difference.
And then I read a case like The Sweet Trials and I am reminded again that not only am I thankful but I am also ashamed. I am ashamed to be white and in particular in reference to this case to be a female as many of the mobs that formed outside homes in Detroit in 1925-1926 were either predominately women, or instigated by women. I have the utmost respect not only for people like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and John Brown who fought for their ENTITLED civil rights but I also hold a level of understanding of those like Booker T. Washington who did not fight back and urged black people to basically accept a separation of race. He fought his own battle in his own way.
The "Sweet Trials" came about in the fall of 1925 in Detroit Michigan. In the past decade the black population of the city had swelled from less than 10,000 to over 80,000 largely due to the Ford factory that was offering jobs and higher pay. There was a huge immigration of blacks, especially from the southern states. Not everyone necessarily went there to work for the plants, there were actually many doctors, although not nearly enough to accommodate the population. The spring and summer of 1925 became exceptionally violent in the Detroit area. In April of 1925 about 500 people surrounded a house throwing rocks and threatening to burn it down. It was a home being rented by a black family in a white neighborhood. In June of that year a black doctor by the name of Alexander Turner bought a home and within minutes of arrival an angry crowd surrounded the home. Windows were shattered by things thrown from the crowd. Within hours two men from what they called the Tireman Ave. Improv Association approached Turner and talked him into selling the home back to them. Just a month later, John Fletcher and his family was sitting down to dinner when a white woman walked past their home and started screaming "Negros live there! Negros live there" pointing at the house. Quickly a mob ensued and there was gunfire involved. A teenager was struck by a bullet in his leg. It was reported that the mob consisted over over 4,000 people. The Fletchers moved the next day. When he left his home there was not a single window in the home that was left intact.
Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black doctor, had bought a house in a white neighborhood in the summer but due to all of the things that had recently happened he decided to put off moving. However, the word was out and on July 14th a town meeting "for whites" was called. Over 700 people attended to discuss the rumor that a black family was moving into the area. Once again men from the Tireman Association were there. One even said "Where a nigger shows his head, the white must shoot" to which cheers were heard. The previous owners, Edward and Marie Smith were threatened that they would be killed and their home bombed if they went through with the sale.
Something that I found very interesting and telling of the stupidity of people of the times is the fact that Edward Smith was actually a black man. In that time period if there was anything worse than a black family it was an interracial one. So presumably you would think that the Smith's had their share of issues living in the home that Ossian Sweet was now buying. This was not true because Edward Smith was extremely light skinned and while he claimed people knew of his race it was as if they chose to ignore it and pretend that he was a white man. Sweet had talked to them specifically about any trouble that Edward may have had or violence towards the Smith's. Ossian's wife, Gladys, thought he was being too overly cautious. Except when she had recently given birth to their daughter while vacationing in Paris Gladys had not seen the racism that Ossian had seen in his childhood. This is particularly odd because by all reports she was raised in a predominant white neighborhood of Detroit and had often been the only black child in her school. When ready to give birth in Paris the Sweets were refused service at American Hospital and she gave birth at a French based hospital. However, to Gladys it seems that because this was not on American soil and she claimed to have not seen the racism she apparently blamed this more on the French than on the Americans. Ossian, on the other hand, while growing up in the south had experienced and witnessed things. In one case he hid as a large crowd of white people chased a black teenager and then poured kerosene on him and set him on fire.
While Ossian did put off moving into the home, he had also decided that he was not going to live in fear and he was not going to be run from his home. He was quoted as saying "I have to die like a man or live like a coward. Before moving into the home Ossian bought about 9 guns and ammunition and also asked for police protection during their move. The latter was likely done for show, and I do not mean on Ossian's part. The police showed but I am sure they did nor would they have done anything, as future, and past conduct had proven. On the first night two of Ossian's brothers, Henry and Otis spent the night. A group of about 150 people gathered. For the most part it seemed a calmer crowd but there were warnings that there would be violence on the second night if they did not move. Hearing this the Sweet's had more friends stay with them on the second night.
On the second night an even larger crowd gathered and were throwing rocks. The police were present but apparently just stood by as the crowd was harassing the Sweet home. At one point one of Ossian's brothers arrived in a taxi and was harassed as he entered the home. Those inside had hurried to the door and opened it to let him enter as the crowd yelled and threw things at him and at the home. The Sweets had already turned off all the lights in the home so that the crowd could not see movement. At approximately 8:25 pm shots were fired from the upper floor and the back porch of the home. In the ensuring gunfire, 33 year old Leon Breiner was standing on a nearby porch and was shot and killed, another man, Eric Houghberg was shot in the leg. Officers immediately went into the home, opened all the shades and turned on all the lights. They ended up arresting 11 people in the home, all the while as the crowd outside continued.
Once arrested Ossian admitted to giving each male inside the house a gun. By 3:30 that morning the prosecutor announced he planned to charge each of the 11 men with 1st degree murder. The preliminary hearing was on September 16th where Judge John Faust denied all defendants bail. Judge Frank Murphy assigned himself the case. Initially he stated it was because no one else wanted it but later admitted he did so because he himself wanted it. It should be noted that defense attorney's were happy with this choice and say that Murphy was a fair judge. I would not want people thinking that Murphy gave himself the case and then in turn was unfair to the defendants. Murphy set trial for October 30. Almost immediately the NAACP got involved and they sent a representative to Detroit to investigate the case. Just after famous attorney, Clarence Darrow and Arthur Garfield Hays were brought on to take the case. Darrow and Hays interviewed the defendants but later said they seemed unwilling to help themselves and were evasive.
The assistant prosecutor was Lester Moll. In his opening to the jury Moll claimed that the area was a "quiet neighborhood that was shattered by gunfire." He conceded that black people had the right to live wherever they chose but that the most important right people had was the right to live and called this premeditated murder. By all apparent research I have found he really said little about or against the mob that had formed outside the home. The prosecution called 70 witnesses and most of them claimed that the crowd was small and orderly. Although the defense did get a few to admit they objected to the Sweets living in their neighborhood and that they did not believe in blacks and whites mixing in a neighborhood. They got one witness to admit to hearing the "cracking of glass." Hays did the opening statement for the defense and brought up the state of mind of the defendants based not just on their own past experiences but also the past experiences of black families in the area. Moll countered saying that theory was "poppycock." A black man by the name of Alonzo Smith testified driving by the area at the time and that he estimated there were 1,000 people in the crowd outside the house and to statements that were being yelled not only at the occupants of the home but also to him as he drove by. When Ossian testified in his own defense he too mentioned his state of mind and the incident he had seen where he saw the boy burned. Main prosecutor, Robert Toms, objected to this being entered but it was denied. Of course Toms also argued later that the mob did not have "malice in their heart" and that there was no evidence they were there to drive the Sweet family out of the neighborhood. To that I am the one saying "poppycock."
On November 25, 1925 the case went to the jury. They deliberated for 46 hours before they told the judge they were deadlocked and a mistrial was declared. They later said that the vote was 7-5 in guilt for Ossian and 10-2 acquittal for the rest of the defendants. Keep in mind that this was an all white male jury that made this decision. Ossian and the other defendants were released on bail but he did not return to the home. In the winter of 1925/1926 the home was set on fire but no serious damage was sustained.
Darrow and Hays were successful in having the next phase of trials separated. First up on April 19, 1926 was the trial of Henry Sweet. He admitting firing a shot out the front window that was near or towards the victim. Darrow gave what has been called his best, and one of the best, ever arguments in a court. He was clear that if this would have been a white man in this situation there would not have been one, let alone two trials. He let the jury know that Henry was being tried for being black, not for his actions. After deliberating for four hours the jury found Henry not guilty. After this prosecutors decided to drop all charges against all the defendants.
Life did not remain easy for Ossian and Gladys. Gladys had been one of those, and the only woman, arrested and put on trial. She was the only one who had received and obtained bail but she did spend a few weeks in jail before her release. She and her daughter obtained tuberculosis. Gladys claimed this was due to her incarceration. In 1928 both Gladys and her daughter succumbed to the disease. Eventually Ossian did take repossession of the house but I cannot say if he ever lived there. He eventually sold the house in the late 1950's due to financial distress. He left his practice and eventually bought a drugstore. After selling his home he converted the upstairs of the drugstore into an apartment and on March 20, 1960 at the age of 64, Ossian committed suicide in his apartment with a gunshot to the head.
I was just prepared to say that at least justice was served in the fact that none of the defendants were convicted and the charges were dropped but I am reminded that there was no evidence that anyone involved in the mob outside their home were ever charged with anything. This event followed Ossian throughout his life and in the end it likely took his life just not behind bars or by one of the lynchings that were common of the times. This is a scar on our history. Some can try and say it is one of those cases we should not remember, I disagree! This is a case that should never be forgotten; this is a case that we need to remember.