Ossian Sweet house being preserved to reflect civil rights struggle
Detroit — Daniel Baxter swung back the doors of the linen closet in the upstairs hallway of his childhood home on Garland Street.
“This is where they found the guns,” Baxter said.
In the master bedroom a few feet away, 94 years ago this week, Dr. Ossian Sweet lay down, with a white mob outside of his home. The crowd was enraged that a black man would move his family into a neighborhood on Detroit's east side.
Shocked by what he saw, Sweet got down, hoping the ruckus might abate.
“And the only thing that broke him out of his trance is when the mob began to throw stones at the house, and one broke through this window,” Baxter said, pointing to a pane that overlooks the small front yard and the city street.
What ensued was a horrific racial incident, three decades before the dawn of the Civil Rights era, that helped establish the principle that self-defense applied to blacks in their homes.
“It hit the bed, and it hit him,” Baxter said. “And it took him out of his shock, if you will.
“And then, when he came to, not even a minute after that, about 19 volleys of shots came out of the house.”
A white man in the mob was killed; Sweet and others in the home at the time were charged with murder. The NAACP hired famed attorney Clarence Darrow to represent Sweet, and the doctor was acquitted. The case brought international attention to housing discrimination in the United States.
Baxter, the director of external affairs for Wayne County, grew up in the house. Mostly through his efforts and those of his family, work has begun in earnest to establish a place that people can tour and learn about the historic events.
About a year from now, on the anniversary of the mob violence and shootings, Sept. 9, a grand opening is planned.
The city received a $500,000 grant from the African American Civil Rights program of the Historic Preservation Fund of the National Park Service. The project is one of more than 50 in almost half of the states that document and display the struggle for racial equality in the last century.
In addition to renovating and reestablishing the home as it existed in 1925, the house will have an interactive center.
Local restoration artists Lisa Milton, Oscar Cotton and Reginald Smith are already at work, preparing historic furnishings, redoing the woodwork, painting, dry-walling and upgrading the electricity and plumbing.
“The goal and objective for this house, as the public comes through, is for them to be able to experience the history of this house, not just by walking through and looking at the walls, but seeing expressions of the history and the incident,” Baxter said.
Sweet said he moved to the neighborhood, just north of the Marina District, along Jefferson, so that his daughter Iva could live amid better circumstances.
“The thing that compels me to share the story is this: My parents bought the house in 1958. I was born in 1965, and every thought, every expression, every memory associated with this house is what Dr. Sweet wanted for his daughter,” Baxter said.
“I reaped the benefits. I stand on his shoulders. If it were not for him, my parents probably never would have bought this home,” he said.
“So while it may not be so good for him, we always have to recognize again that there’s purpose for everything.
“And I just believe that he went through what he went through so I could experience what I have experienced. And out of my gratitude and appreciation, I do everything that I can do to try to share his story, not just to Detroit, not just to Michigan, not just to the United States, but the world over.”
Wayne County Executive Warren Evans was among local officials who attended an event at the house Monday. Evans’ grandfather Albert Cleage Sr. helped found Dunbar Hospital, the first hospital for blacks in the largely segregated city, where Sweet practiced.
About a century later, the metropolitan area is still among the most segregated housing markets in the country.
“The big thing that people look at is the real travesty of justice that racism is,” Evans said in an interview.
“Dr. Sweet defended his residence. During that period of time of clearly heightened tension and racial insensitivity, I realize the camaraderie of those black professionals who tried to support each other and help create opportunities around an environment that was significantly hostile,” he said.
“And I just think that was very, very important: The strong kind of infrastructure that these pioneers had, and they realized their camaraderie with each other was about all they had.
“They were every supportive of each other,” Evans said.
“When Dr. Sweet went through all of that, I’m sure there were dozens of other black physicians in the city who felt his pain, and who realized it was tough living out there.”