Detroit awarded $500k to preserve, expand Ossian Sweet historic district
Detroit — It’s a regular occurrence for curious people to stop by the home of Dr. Ossian Sweet, the site of a historic 1925 mob scene against a black family that had moved into the neighborhood on the city’s east side.
"They get out. They stop. They read the sign. They stand in the grass … busloads, carloads,” said Monica Baxter, whose family has lived in the house at 2905 Garland Street since the 1950s.
Anyone interested in learning more about Sweet and taking a look inside the home will be able to do so in the future after the city was awarded a $500,000 federal grant to expand the historic district, officials announced Monday.
“I’m just excited,” Baxter said. “I’m sitting on pins and needles.”
Standing in front of the two-story brick home on Monday, officials announced a plan that would preserve the Sweet home and two properties across the street that memorialize the story of civil rights in Detroit.
The city received the grant from the African American Civil Rights program of the Historic Preservation Fund, National Park Service and Department of the Interior. The project is among 51 efforts in 24 states that "highlight stories related to the African-American struggle for equality in the 20th century," according to the city.
Plans include researching the home’s history, making exterior improvements to the house and rehab the first floor to accommodate visitors from the public, officials said. Exterior improvements will also be made to the two homes across the street, 2918 and 2912-14 Garland. Physical work on the properties is expected to begin in 12-15 months, officials said.
Now the Detroit election director, Baxter "enjoyed a magnificent childhood" thanks to the trials of Dr. Sweet. David Guralnick, The Detroit News
“For me, it’s been very personal,” said Mayor Mike Duggan while standing on an empty lot across from the Sweet home. “When I was at (University of) Michigan Law School, we studied this carefully. The judge on the case, Frank Murphy, the lawyer in this case, Clarence Darrow, and, of course, being from Detroit this meant a lot.”
Duggan recalled the story of the home that in 1925, Sweet, an African-American physician, purchased in a segregated white neighborhood. It was on Sept. 9 of that year, a mob gathered to run the Sweet family out of the neighborhood. When the family refused to leave, rocks were thrown at the house. Shots were fired in defense and a white man in the mob was killed.
Sweet and others in the home at the time were charged with murder. The NAACP hired Darrow to represent Sweet, and the doctor was acquitted. The case brought international attention to housing discrimination in the United States.
The city of Detroit’s elections director, Daniel Baxter, grew up in the Sweet home, where his family still lives. He expressed his happiness Monday that the grant will further expand the historic district.
"Because of this particular initiative, we know without a shadow of a doubt that this will be the initiative that will spur growth and development and a new interest to this particular community," Baxter said.
Prior to the announcement, Daniel Baxter stood on the porch with his family, which included his mother, Ruby, and sister, Monica. He said he always knew about the history of the home, but it wasn't until a newspaper reporter interviewed him when he was 10 in 1975 that he better understood the importance of his childhood home.
"I became passionate at that particular time," he said.
The Sweet home was added to the State of Michigan Register of Historic Places in 1975, the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and received a State of Michigan historical marker in 2004.
The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP, commended the city of Detroit, the mayor’s office and the city’s former corporation counsel, Melvin Butch Hollowell, for securing the grant.
“This grant allows us to commemorate another part of our nation’s history,” Anthony said. “Reminding us all to remember and to say freedom and justice and liberty. Oh. How sweet it is."