Title

The Sweet Trials: An Account

Document Type

Article

Abstract

The automobile and manufacturing boom that began in Detroit about 1915 made the city a magnet for blacks fleeing the economic stagnation of the South. In the decade from 1915 to 1925, Detroit's black population grew more than tenfold, from 7,000 to 82,000. A severe housing shortage developed, as the city's compact black district could not accommodate all the new arrivals. Blacks brave enough to purchase or rent homes in previously all-white neighborhoods faced intimidation and violence. The spring and summer of 1925 saw several ugly housing-related incidents. It was in this violent summer of 1925 that a black doctor named Ossian Sweet purchased a home at 2905 Garland, in an all-white middle-class neighborhood. Although Sweet originally planned to move his family into the new home in July, he postponed the move for two months in the hopes that racial tensions might ease. They didn't.

Dr. Sweet decided to move his family into his Garland Avenue home on September 8. Ossian Sweet explained his decision to his brother: I have to die like a man or live a coward. Before moving in, Sweet prepared himself for the mob he expected to face. He bought nine guns and enough ammunition for all of them. He notified Detroit police of his planned move and asked for protection. He left his infant daughter at his wife's mother's home. Finally, he arranged to have his younger brothers, Henry and Otis, as well as some of their friends, join him and his wife Gladys for their first perilous night on Garland Avenue.

The next evening was hot. As Gladys Sweet worked in the kitchen preparing a meal, Ossian Sweet and his acquaintances played cards. Someone in the house exclaimed, My God, look at the people! The Sweets looked out through their windows and a screen door to see a swelling crowd. According to the Sweets, stones began flying. The Sweets pulled down the blinds and waited. Rocks hit the house. One smashed through an upstairs window. At 8:25, a fusillade of shots rang out from the upper floor and back porch of the Sweet home. One of the bullets struck thirty-three-year-old Leon Breiner in the back as he stood on the porch of 2914 Garland, talking to friends. Breiner's last words were, Boys, they've shot me. Police covered Breiner with a blanket and took him away. Nearby, another man, Eric Houghberg, lay with a bullet wound to the leg.

Six policeman (who had been present at the house at the time of the shooting) entered the Sweet home, flung up all the shades, turned on all the lights, and arrested the eleven occupants. At police headquarters, the Sweets and their house guests were told for the first time that a man had been killed and a boy wounded. Each of the arrested persons was interviewed separately. They gave wildly different accounts of events. Ossian Sweet admitted having distributed a gun to each male occupant, while some of those interviewed denied any knowledge of guns. At about 3:30 A.M., an assistant prosecutor informed them that he planned to recommend first degree murder warrants against all eleven.

Publication Date

2007

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