Boyle delves into landmark civil rights
case from 1920s
Project boosted by NEH grant
J. Fitzgibbons, Chronicle staff
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.
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
(Stan Sherer photo)
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.
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
"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
Ossian Sweet's home on Garland Avenue in
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
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
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
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
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
"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."