'I have to die a man or live a coward' -- the saga of Dr. Ossian Sweet

Dr. Ossian Sweet purchased this Detroit home on Garland and Charlevoix so he could bring up his daughter in good surroundings.

“I have to die a man or live a coward.” With these words, a mild-mannered black Detroit physician set in motion forces that would result in a dramatic milestone in America’s civil rights movement, extending the notion that a man’s home is his castle to blacks.

It began in the summer of 1925 when Dr. Ossian Sweet decided to move his wife and baby daughter from the crowded lower east side black ghetto into an all-white neighborhood at Garland and Charlevoix.

Dr. Ossian Sweet

Dr. Ossian Sweet

“He wasn’t looking for trouble,” Dr. Sweet’s brother Otis, a dentist, recalled. “He just wanted to bring up his little girl in good surroundings.”

The surroundings may have been good, but they were dangerous for blacks. Sweet knew the risks. Just a few months earlier, another black physician, Dr. A.L. Turner, had moved into an all-white west side neighborhood on Spokane Street. A mob invaded his home, moved all his furniture into a van and drove him out of the neighborhood.

“This made a profound impression on my brother,” continued Otis. “It was then that he told me he was prepared to die like a man.”

By 1925, Detroit’s black population was nearly 80,000. Blacks had migrated to the Northern industrial cities in search of better jobs. Most were packed into a near east side area called Paradise Valley, or Black Bottom. The area was badly overcrowded — seven percent of the city’s population was squeezed into one percent of its housing. Some residents slept on bar pool tables and lived four families to a flat.

Dr. Sweet, and his wife, Gladys, wanted something better.

Gladys Sweet

Gladys Sweet

Born in a small inland Florida community, Ossian Sweet studied medicine at Howard University, practiced briefly in Detroit, then continued his studies in Vienna and Paris. Upon his return to Detroit in 1924, he accepted a position at Detroit’s first < href="" target=“new”>black hospital, Dunbar, and began saving for a home. By the spring of 1925 he had saved enough to purchase a home on Garland for $18,500 with a down payment of $3,500 cash.

Rumblings of trouble began well before Ossian Sweet took occupancy of the house. An organization called the “Water Works Improvement Association” vowed to keep blacks out of the neighborhood.

The woman who sold Dr. Sweet the house told him that she had been warned by a phone caller that if he moved in, she would be killed along with the doctor and the house would be blown up. Ironically, she and her light-skinned black husband had lived in the house undisturbed, the neighbors apparently unaware of her husband’s heritage.

On Tuesday, Sept. 8, Dr. Sweet arrived at his new home with two small vans of furniture. He also brought along guns and ammunition and had arranged for friends and relatives to stay with him for the first few days. They included brothers Otis and Henry, 21, a student at Wilberforce University, John Latting, and William Davis, a federal narcotics officer who had been an army captain overseas during World War I. All were black.

Throughout the day tensions rose in the neighborhood. The Detroit Police Department regarded the situation as grave enough to post officers there day and night.

Famed attorney Clarence Darrow headed the defense team.

Famed attorney Clarence Darrow headed the defense team.

On the following day, Dr. Sweet attended to his practice downtown and most of the others in his home also went to their jobs. When he returned that night, Dr. Sweet had recruited more friends to join those in the house, bringing the total to 11 including Mrs. Sweet.

“The street was a sea of humanity,” Otis recalled. “The crowd was so thick you couldn’t see the street or the sidewalk. Just getting to the front door was like running the gantlet. I was hit by a rock before I got inside.”

The prosecution later produced a series of witnesses who swore that there never were more than 25 or 30 persons in front of the Sweet home.

About 10 p.m. a series of shots rang out from the Sweet home. Leon Breiner, who lived across the street, fell dead and another man was wounded. Police rushed in and arrested everyone in the Sweet house, charging them all — including Mrs. Sweet — charged with murder.

The NAACP promised to defend Dr. Sweet, his wife and friends and brought in Clarence Darrow, a titan of the American bar for more than three decades, as chief counsel. His assistants included Arthur Garfield Hays, one of the nation’s leading liberal lawyers, and Walter M. Nelson, a Detroiter.

Presiding over the trial would be a young redheaded judge named Frank Murphy, who would go on to become mayor of Detroit, governor of Michigan, U.S. Attorney General and a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Afterward Murphy said, “This was the greatest experience of my life. This was Clarence Darrow at his best. I will never see anything like it again. He is the most Christ-like man I have ever known.”

The facts in the case were relatively simple: Someone in Dr. Sweet’s house fired a shot that killed Leon Breiner. Another neighborhood resident, Erik Hofberg, received a bullet in the leg.

Judge Frank Murphy presided over the trial and, in his charge to the jury, made it clear that the right to defend one's home applied to blacks as well as whites.

Judge Frank Murphy presided over the trial and, in his charge to the jury, made it clear that the right to defend one’s home applied to blacks as well as whites.

But the issue was far more complicated: Had there been justification for firing that shot?

In his book “Let Freedom Ring,” defense attorney Hays left a graphic memoir of the case. “Colored people regarded the case as one which raised the definite question of race segregation. The claim was made that the shots were fired in defense of the home. It was pointed out that in Detroit, the Negro population had vastly increased in numbers; that Negro districts had become congested and were centers of filth and squalor; that it was almost impossible for a Negro to obtain a decent home except in a white neighborhood; that the whites were always hostile and the colored man was ordinarily either compelled to move or to use force to protect himself.”

Hays, however, conceded in his account of the trial, “On the face of it, our case was not strong. It seemed clear that Breiner had been killed by a fusillade from the house. Ten men had gathered there with provisions to withstand a possible siege, with guns and ammunition. And there had been police protection.”

The defense, as Hays saw it, depended on the attitude of the defendants at the time of the shooting. Did they think they were in danger? Were they actually scared? Not all of the defendants cared to admit they were scared. They had become heroes to the black community.

The prosecution, meanwhile, had formed its own theory of the case. Lester Moll, chief assistant to Prosecutor Robert M. Toms, recalls “The case had come to the attention of our office 24 hours before the actual shooting. Phone threats to the Sweets had been reported and a police guard had been posted. The following night shots were fired simultaneously from the Sweet home. Mr. Breiner was hit while on the porch of a house across the street. The shooting appeared to follow a pre-arranged signal from within the Sweet home.”

“We interviewed police who were in agreement that the crowd out in front was not numerous and that there was no threat of violence. Based on these conversations we issued a warrant on the theory that the shots were fired without provocation.”

A Detroit News reporter, Philip A. Adler, testified for the defense. He was at the scene of the shooting and told of a “considerable mob” of between “400 and 500,” and stones hitting the house “like hail.”

“I heard someone say, ‘A Negro family has moved in here and we’re going to get them out’,” Adler testified. “I asked a policeman what the trouble was and he told me it was none of my business.”

The defense hammered hard at the purpose of the Water Works Improvement Association and its goal to keep blacks out. In 1925 the Ku Klux Klan claimed 100,000 members in Detroit and a cross had recently been burned at the steps of city hall.

Detroit News reporter Philip A. Adler testified he saw a mob of about 400 to 500 outside the Sweet home and that rocks were hitting the house

Detroit News reporter Philip A. Adler testified he saw a mob of about 400 to 500 outside the Sweet home and that rocks were hitting the house “like hail.”

Darrow stressed the state of mind of those huddled inside the Sweet home that night. The emotional climax of the trial came when Darrow called Ossian Sweet to the stand in his own defense.

Sweet told of seeing a menacing crowd outside his home: “Frightened, after getting a gun I ran upstairs. Stones were hitting the house intermittently. I threw myself on the bed and lay there awhile, perhaps 15 or 20 minutes- when a stone came through the window. Part of the glass hit me.”

“What happened next?” asked Darrow.

“Pandemonium — I guess that’s the best way to describe it–broke loose inside my house,” replied Sweet. “Everyone was running from room to room. There was a general uproar.”

“Somebody yelled, ‘There’s someone coming.’ A car had pulled up to the curb. My brother Otis, and Mr. Davis got out. The mob yelled, ‘Here’s niggers, get them! Get them!’ As my brother and Davis rushed inside my house, a mob surged forward. It looked like a human sea. Stones kept coming, faster. I was downstairs. Another window was smashed. Then one shot, then eight or 10 from upstairs, Then it was all over.”

Then came Darrow’s key question: “What was your state of mind at the time of the shooting?”

Sweet replied, “When I opened the door and saw the mob, I realized I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people throughout its entire history. In my mind I was pretty confident of what I was up against. I had my back against the wall. I was filled with a peculiar fear, the fear of one who knows the history of my race. I knew what mobs had done to my people before.”

Under Darrow’s skillful sympathetic question, Dr Sweet told of the terrible legacy of fear that mob violence had left with his race. Over the protests of the prosecution, his testimony was admitted as having a bearing on the psychology of the occupants of the Sweet home.

The second jury took only four hours to find Henry Sweet, brother of Dr. Sweet, not guilty.

The second jury took only four hours to find Henry Sweet, brother of Dr. Sweet, not guilty.

In his closing arguments to the jury, Darrow questioned whether it was possible for 12 white men (however hard they tried) to give a fair trial to a Negro.

He argued, “The Sweets spent their first night in their new home afraid to go to bed. The next night they spent in jail. Now the state wants them to spend the rest of their lives in the penitentiary….There are persons in the North and South who say a black man is inferior to the white and should be controlled by whites. There are also those who recognize his rights and say he should enjoy them. To me this case is a cross-section of human history. It involves the future and the hope of some of us that the future will be better than the past.”

In his charge to the jury Judge Murphy indicated clearly his belief that a man’s home is his castle and that no one has a right to invade it. He left no question of the right to shoot when one has reasonable grounds to fear that his life or property is in danger. And he made it clear that these rights belong to blacks as well as to whites.

The jury deliberated for 46 hours, then announced that it had been unable to reach a verdict. The prosecution was not ready to give up, and elected to press charges against a single defendent, Henry Sweet, the 21-year-old brother of Ossian. The state believed he fired the shot that killed Leon Breiner. The second trial in many ways paralled the first. The testimony remained almost unchanged and Darrow again gave a moving summation.

Prosecutor Robert M. Toms

Prosecutor Robert M. Toms.

After reviewing the horrors of the slave ships and the two centuries in bondage in the United States that Black Americans had endured, Darrow declared that they were owed a debt and obligation by the white race.

He went on: “Your verdict means something in this case. It means something more than the fate of this boy. It is not often that a case is submitted to 12 men where the decision may mean a milestone in the history of the human race. But this case does. And I hope and trust that you have a feeling of responsibility that will make you take it and do your duty as citizens of a great nation, and as members of the human family, which is better still.”

The jury found Henry Sweet innocent after less than four hours deliberation. No further effort was made to prosecute any of the defendants.

After all charges were dropped against him, Ossian Sweet moved back into his home on Garland.

However, tragedy plagued his later life. Not long after his brother’s trial, Dr. Sweet lost the family he had purchased the house for in the first place. His daughter, Iva, died of tuberculosis in 1926, at the age of 2. His wife, Gladys, succumbed to the same disease soon after. The widow of Leon Breiner, shot on Garland Street, sued for $150,000 but the case was dismissed. Dr. Sweet tried his hand at politics, running four times for various offices, but losing all. He remarried twice, both marriages ending in divorce.

In 1944, he sold the house on Garland and purchased a pharmacy where he lived above the store. In 1960, after years of ill health and depression, he was found dead, a bullet through his head and a revolver in his hand.

The Sweet home as it looks today.

The Sweet home as it looks today.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News