The Story Behind the Trial

"I have to die like a man or live a coward."
-- Dr. Ossian Sweet

One night in September, 1924, the lives of Dr. Ossian Sweet and his family changed forever. But this change affected more than one single Detroit family; it rippled through the entire city of Detroit. After this night, the city would never be the same.

Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife Gladys like so many others had followed the dream of a better life that the booming automobile and manufacturing industry offered in Detroit. This flourishing progress that began about 1915 made the city an attractive place to settle for African Americans living in the Jim Crow South during the early years of the 20th Century. Better pay, better jobs, better opportunities offer the chance for a brighter future.

In the summer of 1925, Dr. Sweet purchased a home at 2905 Garland, in an all-white middle-class neighborhood. That spring and summer several violent incidents had already taken place as all white neighborhoods attempted to keep African Americans out. Dr. and Mrs. Sweet had hoped that attitudes would change. But the city was not going to accept this type of change easily.

Although they knew that moving into their new home would likely be dangerous, the Sweets moved in as planned on September 8. To prepare for whatever violent resistance might lie ahead, Dr. Sweet purchased nine guns and plenty of ammunition. He contacted the Detroit police and asked for their protection. He left his infant daughter with his mother-in-law, and contacted his brothers Henry and Otis, and some of his friends to ask for their help.

A crowd of more than 100 gathered in front of the house the first night after they moved in, but without incident except for rocks that were thrown at the house in the wee hours of the morning. The following morning, one member of this crowd let the Sweets know that there had been a meeting the night before. The word was, "The crowd had a meeting last night at the confectionery store....They say you better get out of here tonight." Dr. Sweet now faced the probability of violence. He and his friends and family prepared for what they feared may happen that evening.

The evening of September 9, Gladys Sweet worked in the kitchen preparing a meal of roast pork, sweet potatoes and mustard greens. Ossian Sweet and the other men played cards. At one point, someone in the house shouted, "My God, look at the people!" A large crowed was gathering outside, people were everywhere, filling the nearby steelyard, the space around the grocery store, the alley, the porches of nearby homes. According to the Sweets, someone began throwing rocks at the house. They felt trapped inside, gripped with fear. 

Around 8 p.m., Ossian's brother Otis and a friend arrived. The crowd began to yell, "Niggers! Niggers! Get the damn niggers!" When Dr. Sweet opened the door to let them in, he said later, "the whole situation filled me with an appalling fear--a fear that no one could comprehend but a Negro, and that Negro one who knew the history behind his people."

At this point, all they could do was to pull down the blinds and wait. Rocks began to hit the house, and one broke an upstairs window. At 8:25 p.m., shots rang out from the upper floor and back porch of the Sweet home. Leon Breiner, a thirty-three year old neighbor, was hit in the back by a stray bullet as he stood on the porch of 2914 Garland, talking to friends. Breiner's last words were, "Boys, they've shot me." Twenty-two year old Eric Houghberg, another member of the crowd, received a bullet wound to the leg.

Douglas Linder's web site describes what happened next: :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. Some claimed to have been sleeping at the time of the shooting; one claimed to have been taking a bath. 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.

On September 16, at a preliminary hearing, Judge John Faust denied bail for all defendants. Following the hearing, thirty-five-year-old Judge Frank Murphy, the presiding judge of Recorder's Court, assigned himself to the trial of the Sweet case. Murphy explained that he took the case because "every judge on this bench is afraid....they think its dynamite." He also admitted to a more self-serving reason for wanting the trial: "[The other judges] don't realize this is the opportunity of a lifetime to demonstrate sincere liberalism and judicial integrity at a time when liberalism is coming into its own." Murphy set October 30 as the date for the start of the trial."

(Information on this page was provided courtesy of Professor Douglas Linder, University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law.)

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The Trial