Thursday, September 5, 2013


Chattel slavery is America’s Original Sin, and its sorrowful legacy survives in continuing policies such as racial profiling, red-lined neighborhoods, police brutality, the color of death row, and so-called achievement tests that unlock but also lock doors. The story of Ossian Sweet offers a unique insight into this history. It permits us to understand the personal as political, the historical in the contemporary. It is a reminder that the past challenges us in the present.
From “One Man's Castle: Clarence Darrow In Defense Of The American Dream” by Phyllis Vine published 2004
On September 8, 1925 African American doctor Ossian Sweet moved into a house at 2905 Garland Avenue, Detroit, Michigan. Sweet had bought the house, which was located in a White neighbourhood, in July but delayed moving until September. Sweet thought it prudent to inform the police of his intent to move into his new home and ask for their protection. He left his baby daughter with his mother-in-law while his two younger brothers and some friends helped him and his wife Gladys move into their new home. The night of September 8 as the Sweet household moved into their new home a mob of approximately 150 White people gathered in front of the house and threw rocks at the house. The following night another cowardly mob of approximately 800 gathered in front of the Sweet family home. Phyllis Vine a White historian who authored the book “One Man's Castle: Clarence Darrow In Defense Of The American Dream” described the scene of September 9, 1925: “Peering over the windowsill of his second-floor bedroom window on the night of Sept. 9, 1925, Dr. Ossian Sweet witnessed a hair-raising sight. A seething mob was gathering in the street outside the spacious home he had recently bought in the middle-class Waterworks Park neighborhood on Detroit's east side, yet the police seemed unconcerned. Some officers diverted traffic around the milling crowd. Others fraternized with the angry rioters even as they hurled rocks at Sweet's house, pelting its siding, smashing windows and spraying the doctor with shards of glass. Realizing that he could expect no help from the authorities, Sweet doused the lights while his wife and companions took cover.” Sweet had prepared for such an event by arming himself and his friends because he knew what a bloodthirsty White mob was capable of doing to unarmed Africans. In 1901 as a 7 year old in Bartow, Florida, Sweet had witnessed the horrific lynching of 17 year old Fred Rochelle an African American who was burned to death. Describing what the 7 year old Sweet witnessed in Bartow, Florida, Vine writes: “They arranged a combustible heap, piling scraps of wood and kindling around the barrel, which they doused with coal oil so it would ignite and burst into flames quickly when brushed by fire. Rochelle was dragged to the spot and tied securely. The mob poured drinks for spectators while he cried for mercy. Eventually Mr. Taggart was ready, and they took their places so he could strike a match. For the next eight minutes Rochelle shrieked. Flames climbed up his legs, formed a curtain around his torso, draped his face. After the flames died back, souvenir hunters pocketed pieces of his charred remains – a digit, a part of his femur, a piece of his foot.” Imagine the impact on a 7 year old African American child witnessing such an atrocity as “he hid quiet as a rock, under the freckled canopy of a cypress tree.” The impact was such that: “Twenty-five years later he would recall the details of the sickly smell of cooked flesh for a jury in a packed courtroom.”
The Sweet family was not the first to buy a home in a White neighbourhood. Those families had been attacked and run out of their homes. Three months earlier an African American doctor and his family were forced to flee their home when a White mob assisted by the police threatened their lives. In the 2007 published “Encyclopedia of American Race Riots, Volume 2” Walter Rucker and James Nathaniel Upton write: “On June 23, 1925, Dr. Alexander Turner, along with his wife and mother-in-law, were moving into their home on Spokane Street when they were met by Tireman Avenue Improvement Association – hundreds of neighbors who gathered in front of them with rocks, potatoes and garbage to throw at Turner’s westside home. At gunpoint, two men forced Turner to sign his deed over to them, and with the help of the police, had the Turner family escorted from the premises.”
The occupants of the Sweet family home, surrounded by a vicious mob seemingly bent on lynching opened fire to defend themselves from almost certain death. The police seeing that the African Americans were defending themselves against the murderous White mob then decided to invade the Sweet family home. Sweet, his wife, his brothers and friends were all arrested. At police headquarters they were informed that two members of the mob had been shot, one fatally. The 11 adults who were in the home at the time were all charged with first degree murder and held without bail. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) became involved in the case to support the Sweet family and friends who had been arrested. In October a delegation of 4 NAACP members led by James Weldon Johnson (co-writer of the Black National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”) approached Clarence Darrow (one of the most famous criminal defense lawyers at the time) to defend the accused.
Reading about the trial of the 11 African Americans who were forced to defend themselves against a murderous White mob one has to ask how much has changed for African Americans caught up in the justice system. In his opening statement for the defense co-counsel for the accused Arthur Garfield Hays said: “We shall show not only what happened in the house, but we shall attempt a far more difficult task-that of reproducing in the cool atmosphere of a courtroom, a state of mind-the state of mind of these defendants, worried, distrustful, tortured and apparently trapped-a state of mind induced by what has happened to others of their race, not only in the South where their ancestors were once slaves, but even in the North in the States which once fought for their freedom.”
During the recent trial of George Zimmerman who killed unarmed 17 year old African American Trayvon Martin the prosecution and the defence tried to ignore the fact that “the historical is in the contemporary” and Trayvon Martin even though he had never witnessed a lynching knew in his bones that Zimmerman was that lynch mob from his people’s history. Darrow said to the jury of 12 White men during the trial of Sweet and the other defendants in 1925: “If I thought any of you had any opinion about the guilt of my clients, I wouldn't worry, because that might be changed. What I'm worried about is prejudice. They are harder to change. They come with your mother's milk and stick like the color of the skin. I know that if these defendants had been a white group defending themselves from a colored mob, they never would have been arrested or tried. My clients are charged with murder, but they are really charged with being black.” In 2012 Zimmerman followed and eventually killed the teenage Martin because he tried and found him guilty of being African American. In July 2013 during the Zimmerman trial the murdered Martin was the one on trial in the minds of the 5 White women and 1 Hispanic woman on the jury. In the minds of those women Martin was found guilty of all the prejudices that are still held about African American men because of the colour of their skin and that is why Zimmerman was found not guilty.
During the recent 50 year anniversary of the historic march on Washington and the famous “I have a dream” speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. it was mostly ignored that even in 2013 African Americans are still judged on the colour of their skin and not the content of their character. That is why police in New York continue to “stop and frisk” and police across North America (including Canada) practice racial profiling. It is indeed a reminder that the past challenges us in the present.
In 1926 Detroit, Michigan the defendants in the Sweet family case were found not guilty after two trials the first of which ended in a mistrial. The entire traumatic episode took a dreadful toll on the entire family. Two years after the trial Sweet lost his 2 year old daughter and his 27 year old wife to tuberculosis which his wife had contracted during the time she spent in jail. Sweet eventually committed suicide on March 20, 1960. Ironically the house at 2905 Garland Avenue was listed on the State of Michigan Historic Places site on November 21, 1975, on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and a State of Michigan Historical Marker was erected there on July 22, 2004.

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