The Campus Chronicle
Vol. XVI, Issue 22
for the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts
Feb. 23, 2001

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Boyle delves into landmark civil rights case from 1920s

Project boosted by NEH grant

by Daniel J. Fitzgibbons, Chronicle staff

Kevin Boyle

Kevin Boyle is using long-sealed census bureau records to gain insights into the Detroit neighborhood where African-American physician Ossian Sweet defied the city's racial lines.
(Stan Sherer photo)

Ask Kevin Boyle about the National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship he recently received and a look of satisfaction brightens the face of the associate professor of History.

     But ask about the project the fellowship will support and the self-professed "history geek" eagerly relates a true-life tale of murder, racial tension, civil rights activism and courtroom drama in 1920s Detroit.

     During the 2001-02 academic year, Boyle plans to research the case of Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African-American whose move into an all-white neighborhood of Detroit in 1925 was the spark for a sensational trial and celebrated civil rights case. The Sweet case, says Boyle, has a fascinating cast including Clarence Darrow, the nation's leading trial lawyer, and trial judge Frank Murphy, who later became a powerful voice for civil liberties on the U.S. Supreme Court justice.

     "Everyone knows this story" in Detroit, says Boyle, who grew up in the Motor City.

     "When I go back to see my parents and people ask what I'm working on, they say, 'Oh not again, everyone's heard that story.'"

     Boyle believes a new rendition of the story will shed light on bigger issues such as the creation of black ghettoes in northern cities and the early beginnings of civil rights activism, particularly by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which used the Sweet case as a lightning rod for fund-raising and advocacy.

     "I realized a couple of years ago that the story is largely unknown," says Boyle. "It's a story worth telling."

     That story begins with Sweet, a Howard University-trained physician who, like tens of thousands of African-Americans, moved to industrial cities of the North in the early years of the 20th century. Sweet, who hailed from Florida, had accepted a job at Detroit's first black hospital in 1924.

     Most of the city's black population was crowded into an east side neighborhood, but Sweet wanted a better life for his wife Gladys and baby daughter Iva, says Boyle. So the couple bought a two-story bungalow at 2905 Garland Avenue, an all-white section of the city.

     "Sweet had no organization behind him - he's doing it as a family decision," says Boyle.

     "They were living with his mother-in-law. He wants to move to a nice, safe neighborhood. It's all his decision. It's not a test case."

     According to Boyle, the Sweets knew that violence had been inflicted on other blacks who had previously tested the racial lines in Detroit, where the Ku Klux Klan had a large following.

     "They understood there would be trouble," he says. "They were prepared for confrontation."

     Those preparations included bringing along 10 guns and 100 rounds of ammunition. Sweet also asked his two brothers and several friends to stay in the house and defend the property. The couple left their daughter with a relative.

     On the Sweets' first night in their new home, a large mob gathered outside but nothing happened, according to Boyle.

Ossian Sweet's home

Ossian Sweet's home on Garland Avenue in Detroit.

     The next night was a different story, however. Again, a huge number of whites surrounded the house. Detroit police, who were on duty at Dr. Sweet's request, stood by as rocks began to fly toward the house.

     The 11 people inside the Sweet residence were "panic stricken," says Boyle, and several raced to the second floor windows and opened fire into the crowd. Dr. Sweet, who was unarmed, heard the shots from the ground floor.

     Most of the volley sailed over the crowd, but one shot flew across the street, hitting a bystander in the back and killing him.

     According to Boyle, the police then rushed into the Sweet house and arrested everyone they found. Since police couldn't determine who fired the fatal shot, all 11 were charged with conspiracy to murder.

     Word of the incident reached the NAACP headquarters in New York the next day and leaders of the fledgling organization decided to take up the case of all 11 defendants. Less than 20 years old at the time, says Boyle, the NAACP was still looking for a way to dramatize the issues facing African-Americans.

     So the NAACP hired the most prominent trial lawyer in the country, Clarence Darrow to take on the case. Having just completed the Scopes Monkey Trial, Darrow "was at the peak of his fame," according to Boyle.

     Assisted by attorney Arthur Garfield Hayes of the American Civil Liberties Union, Darrow mounted an impassioned defense during the trial before Judge Frank Murphy.

     The all-white, male jurors failed to agree on a verdict, "which in itself was a big victory," Boyle says. "Darrow was a big factor — his closing argument was very powerful."
After Murphy declared a mistrial, prosecutors then decided to try Dr. Sweet's younger brother, Henry, the only defendant who admitted firing a gun during the Garland Avenue riot.

     Once again, Darrow dominated the trial, which ended in Henry Sweet's acquittal and a landmark civil rights victory.

     But Sweet paid a dear price for the right to move back to Garland Avenue. Within two years, his wife and daughter were dead of tuberculosis. Many in Detroit's African-American community still believe Gladys Sweet contracted the disease while in jail.

     Until the 1950s, says Boyle, Dr. Sweet lived in the Garland Avenue house, still the only black in the neighborhood. In 1960, just as the civil rights movement is gaining momentum nationally, Sweet fatally shot himself.

     "There's an irony in that. Reading the trial transcript, he never fired a shot," says Boyle. "It's a sad story. ... For all the principle he won, he actually lost everything."

     But the Sweet case tapped a new reservoir of support for the NAACP, which raised lots of money for the defense. "From this case came the Legal Defense Fund," says Boyle, "which was a main tool for dismantling segregation in the South."

     For Boyle, who's been researching the Sweet case for two years, the drama of the story is a way to delve deeper into the history of race relations. If all goes according to plan, the research will lead to a book manuscript. The NEH fellowship and some added funds from the dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, are providing "an opportunity to really focus on the project," Boyle says.

     "I want to discuss the bigger issues, such as the nature of the civil rights movement in the U.S.," he says. "If you talk to most people, they'll tell you the civil rights movement began in the 1950s and '60s. The civil rights movement was going on in the 1920s and in the North as much as in the South."

     Along with gaining some additional perspective, there is another advantage to re-examining the Sweet case, says Boyle. Once-sealed Census Bureau records from the era are now open to historians, offering fresh details about Sweet's neighborhood.

     "We now can look at manuscripts to see who lived there in 1920 and 1930," he says. "The data tells a lot about the neighborhood."

     The same records may also fill out Ossian Sweet's personal history, says Boyle, who's already planning his year-long leave. Along with tapping NAACP records and the W.E.B. Du Bois papers housed at Du Bois Library and the Darrow papers in Washington, D.C., Boyle says he'll be traveling to Detroit and Florida to conduct further research.

     The Sweet case also highlights what Boyle calls one of the most important issues of the 20th century: the creation of ghettoes in northern cities. Restricting African-Americans to certain areas, he says, also limited their access to jobs and influenced how police dealt with the black community.

     Studying those issues within the context of his hometown may also prove illuminating for Boyle, who observes that the Sweet case didn't change much in Detroit. "Statistically, it's still the most segregated city in the U.S."

 
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