Trial Background

The Sweets Knew Racial Violence
House Hunting in Detroit
Moving In
Racial Violence in Detroit in the 1920s
The Shooting
The Arrest

The excerpts below come from Marcet Haldeman-Julius's account of the Sweet trials, published in
Clarence Darrow's Two Greatest Trials (Haldeman-Julius Co.  1927)

The Sweets Knew Racial Violence

Down in Florida, for several years Henry Sweet daily passed a wide-spreading tree.  At first glance it was beautiful enough but it was laden, that tree, with lead from the guns that had riddled a Negro’s body with bullets.  With his own eyes, he saw the ashes (while they were still smoking hot) from which the charred remains of a lynched Negro (in Polk County, Florida), had within the hour been removed.  Going down a dusty road one day (near Bartow, Florida, on Peace River) Dr. Ossian Sweet, then a boy, saw a crowd of some five thousand white people driving along a Negro youth.  Fred Rochelle was his name.  He saw them pour kerosene over him and set fire to the living flesh.  With his own ears he heard the poor wretch’s shrieks and groans.  Hidden and terrified, he watched the crowd turn the whole occasion into a Roman holiday and, their victim dead, get gloriously drunk.  He saw the morbid laughingly take pictures of the frightful scene, and then by the dozen pick off pieces of the burned bones and flesh to take home as souvenirs of their participation in the sadistic orgy.  It is ghastly enough to hear about, I can assure you.  (I have in common kindness spared you the more gruesome details.)  I leave you to imagine what it must have been to see and what a profound impression it must have made on the mind and heart of a sensitive boy. 

House Hunting in Detroit

Arrived in Detroit, the Sweets went directly to Gladys’ parents, with whom they spent a happy winter.  In the spring, they decided very naturally that they would buy a home of their own.

Now Gladys tells me—that I absolutely believe her—that when she went house hunting, she had in mind only two things—first to find a house that was in itself desirable, and by that I mean an attractive one that would meet the needs of their household, and second, to find a house that would be within their pocketbook.  She wanted (what woman doesn’t?) a pretty home, and it made no difference to her whether it was in a colored neighborhood or in a white neighborhood.  Had she found this same little brick house—bungalow she calls it—in a colored neighborhood, she would have been just as pleased with it and just as eager to buy it.  Again let me remind you that for seven years her family had been the only colored one in their block.

“But could you have found such a house in a colored neighborhood?” I asked.

“No, she answered, “that’s just it—I couldn’t.”

Let me assure you that the neighborhood—not even a middle-class one—in which they did not buy isn’t one over which to become enthusiastic.  The Sweets’ house on the corner is the only really attractive one in it.  Next to it on the left is a frame cottage owned by a piano-tuner.  Across them is a whole row of two-flat houses.  Most of the people in them have Polish, Swedish and German sounding names, although many of them, I understand, have been born in this country and some have become naturalized citizens. 

Directly across (Garland Avenue) from the Sweets is a grocery store.  Diagonally across is a public school.  Opposite them on Charlevoix is an apartment house.

“An apartment house!”  I can fairly hear you exclaim.

Yes, just so, and as you can imagine, the people in it, who owned no property, were among those to proclaim most loudly that the Sweets’ presence would depreciate property.  They did, in fact—the renters and apartment house occupants—much to fan the flame.  But while they talked and the storm brewed, Gladys thought only of where rugs and pictures should go, what furniture would be needed, and of the gay little flower garden in her pretty backyard.

“Wasn’t your new home rather far from your husband’s work?”  I asked.

“Why should he be close to his work?”  she returned.  “He doesn’t have his office at home and he makes calls all over the city. We were looking for something comfortable.  Above all, I wanted a place where the baby could be out of doors and have plenty of good fresh air.”

Of course,” I commented mildly, “if I were to buy into a neighborhood, one of the very first things that would interest me would be the kind of people in it.  I should want to feel pretty sure that my neighbors would be congenial.”

“I took it for granted,” explained Gladys, “that whoever they were I should have practically nothing to do with them.”

Moving In

And now while we wait, as I did, for Dr. Sweet himself to come, suppose while Gladys entertains the baby—suppose I tell you the story, as I got it from the Sweets, of what happened on that tragic Wednesday night last September.

It was on Tuesday, the eighth of September, 1925, that the Sweets moved into their new home.  Now I want you to realize that this house (for which they paid eighteen thousand five hundred dollars) was purchased under no false pretenses.  Dr. Sweet himself, who is a decidedly dark Negro, made all the negotiations.  Both he and Gladys were out to see the property not once, but several times. Dr. Sweet sat on the porch and many of the neighbors saw him there.  They know who he was and what sort of a Negro he was and they knew that he had purchased the house and purchased it not to rent, but for a home.  I stress this point because I’ve been asked so frequently if the purchase was made through Gladys.  It was not.  The Doctor attended himself to the whole deal.  They paid three thousand dollars down in cash and agreed to pay one hundred and fifty a month besides an extra one thousand a year.  Through all the trouble that has ensued, they have kept up their payments.  The Doctor has a large and successful practice.  He is, moreover, by all accounts, capable and straightforward in business.

Six people went over, on that morning of September eighth, to the corner of Charlevoix and Garland.  They were Dr. Sweet, Gladys, Joe Mack (who drove the Doctor’s car, a Buick) Henry Sweet, Dr. Otis Sweet (a practicing dentist, whom I have mentioned before), his friend, William E. Davis (a graduate pharmacist and at that time a prohibition agent), and Henry’s chum, John Latting.  Both Henry and John expected to leave within a week for Wilberforce College, where Latting is also a student.  School was to open on the fifteenth of September.  Dr. Otis Sweet and Davis intended to room with the Sweet family for the winter.  It was, including little Iva, to be a household of five.

The younger people that Tuesday morning were in a happy mood, as one usually is when moving into a new home, especially if the move has been long looked forward to and eagerly anticipated but underneath the high spirits was grim anxiety.  Dr. Sweet himself was full of anxious forebodings, for ominous rumors had reached him—rumors so sinister that although he had bought the house in June he had already delayed for three months his actual moving into it.  You see, a wave of race prejudice which for several years had been gathering volume, had at last burst with virulent violence over the whole length and breadth of Detroit.

“If I had known,” Dr. Sweet later said to me earnestly, “if I had known how bitter that neighborhood was going to be, I wouldn’t have taken that house as a gift.  But after I had bought it, I felt that I could never again respect myself if I allowed a gang of hoodlums to keep me out of it.”

Much has been made of the fact that the Sweets did not take much furniture to the new home.  This was obviously because they had been living with the Mitchells and had not as yet acquired very many belongings.  The truck brought over, however, a bedroom set, odds and ends, besides trunks and food, and some kitchen equipment. 

Gladys chief object on that first day was, as any housewife can easily understand, to get things clean.  There was a hired man to help line up things expeditiously.  He also—Norris Murray is his name—is one of the defendants.  It was by chance that hem as well as Joseph Mack, Dr. Sweet’s chauffeur, was involved in the riot.  Pawns, both of them are, caught in the cruel mesh of circumstances.

In spite of her solicitude over the outcome, Gladys—who is a very feminine type—felt serene in her confidence in Dr. Sweet’s ability to meet emergencies, and more or less contentedly she set the college boys—Henry and Latting—and the hired man to work while Dr. Otis Sweet and Mr. Davis attended to straightening out some of their own various possessions and gave plenty of advice.  Dr. Sweet, seeing that all was going well, departed for his office.  They had a makeshift lunch, and, in the afternoon, Dr. Carter (a friend of the Sweets) gaily brought out the newly purchased dishes.  In the late afternoon—after five o’clock it was—Edna Butler (an expert needlewoman who works for the Woman’s Exchange) and Serena Rochelle (employed by a well known decorating firm in Detroit) came out to help Gladys decide positively what furniture would best fit the various spaces so that she could be as expeditious as possible when she and Dr. Sweet went down the next morning to make the actual purchases.  The girls were enthusiastic and gave themselves up to happy planning.  All you young housewives, who are just about to get again into you own homes after sojourning with even the most delightful of parents, can imagine how Gladys felt.

She was shaken rudely enough into a different attitude when one of the men noticed that people were coming along the street in more than ordinary numbers and pausing to look at the house. They passed—these strangers—repassed, passed again. (Gladys watched one women go back d forth no less than sixteen times).  For on that first evening, the police did not, at the beginning, permit any one person to linger unduly long.  They made some effort—or at least the appearance of an effort—to keep the people moving.

In spite of this, the crowd gathered so steadily that the two young women—Miss Butler and Miss Rochelle—felt timid about getting through it and decided to spend the night with the Sweets.  The exact size of the crowd is one of the big points of argument in the case, but it is certain that it was large enough to cause very real concern to the group of people whom it was so curiously and hostilely watching.  Midnight came, and there were still from five to eight hundred people.  From time to time, groups of them (the Sweets heard later) gathered in little knots in the confectionery store on Charlevoix, next to the corner grocery.  It was about three o’clock in the morning before the ghoulish crowd dispersed.  By daybreak all had scattered.

Now while this whole experience was unutterably disagreeable to Gladys, she was not exactly—on that first night—frightened by it.  She had lived peacefully for so many years in Detroit that in spite of the outrages perpetrated against other Negroes, it just did not seem real to her that she, herself, could be in actual danger.

Racial Violence in Detroit

 “What I don’t understand,” I exclaimed, the first evening I met him, “is why the people in that particular neighborhood should have been so intense in their prejudices.  There are plenty of other neighborhoods I am told, in which colored families live.”

 “Yes,” interrupted Mr. Perry, the colored lawyer on the case, who happened to be with us (more about him later).  “My wife and I have been living, until recently, in a house (a two-story flat) in which we, on the upper floor and cousin’s floor and a cousin’s family on the lowerfloor, were the only colored people in the block.  When we moved, another colored family took our apartment.  In fact, my wife’s aunt owns it.  It is still the only house occupied by Negros in the entire block.”

“When Mrs. Stark bought her house,” commented Dr. Sweet dryly, “a quarter of a million white people and something like seventy-five thousand Negros hadn’t come up to Detroit from the South.  Those who were here, both white and colored, had the Northern point of view.  They went their own ways and respected each other.”

Vividly, sometimes rapidly, often dramatically, and always interesting in clear, well chosen, well enunciated English, Dr. Sweet explained to me the race situation in Detroit.  Later I talked with others on the same subject.  Among those who seemed particularly well informed was Mr. Paul Dennie, of the Constitutional League, which was organized as a counter movement to the Ku Klux Klan.  It was Mr. Dennie who told me that, at an executive board meeting of the Constitutional League last summer, it was the consensus of opinion the Detroit was more ridden with race hatred toward Negros than any spot north of the Mason and Dixon line.  Both Mr. Dennie and Dr. Sweet agreed that the Klan is the acute cause of the racial problem in Detroit.  But the underlying causes of it go deep.

Since 1915, when Ford started paying five dollars a day, all sort of scissor-bills and illiterate white people (besides some very fine types) have come north to take advantage of what seemed to them high wages.  Most of them were already, when arrived, filled to the brim with race prejudices.  When the war came, and many young men were drafted, Police Commissioner Inches (an alleged Klansman) actually advertised extensively in southern papers offering inducements to men there to join the Police Department in Detroit.  Each prejudiced man was careful to instill his own attitude into his friends.  Slowly but surely the poison spread.  A feeling of infinite superiority toward Negros percolated through practically the entire police force.  It percolated too through the men who worked side by side with Negroes in industry.  (Be it said to Ford’s credit that he was consistently employed Negros in proportion to their numbers in Detroit).

About 1917, the Klan began to get in its deadly work.  And while it is true that the Klan is not quite as active as it was, still you can judge for yourselves of its present importance in Detroit when I tell you that four members of that city’s present common council were, at last election, endorsed by the Klan.  (One of these members had been a former cyclops.)  The campaign for mayor was distinctly a Klan and Anti-Klan fight. When in the winter of 1924-25, the office of mayor became unexpectedly vacant the campaign was a straight Klan-Anti-Klan issue.  Moreover, constantly the members of the Klan (and their wives) unofficially tried to impress upon the people I Detroit that their property would decrease in value if Negros moved near it.  (Even those who no longer care a snap for the Klan as an organization retain, today, the prejudices acquired while they were active in it).

Meanwhile, the shortage of housing facilities in the so-called Negro quarters, is so overwhelming that colored people absolutely must scatter if they wish to own their own homes.  It is a vicious circle: race prejudice is fanned by the genuine fear of property holders that heir won homes—often bought with great difficulty—will decrease in value, and this economic fear is played upon and draws its life from race prejudice toward Negroes.  Naturally, politicians take advantage of this racial economic situation and play it up of all its worth. It is significant, I think, that it was shortly after that Klan-Anti-Klan campaign for mayor in the winter of 1924-1925 that this violent attack of anti-Negro hysteria struck Detroit.  From early in March of that year (1925) one outrage Negroes followed swiftly upon the heels of another.

It was in March that the house of a women with a three-weeks-old baby was stoned and when she attempted to defend herself she was taken down to the police station.  Less than a month later, a vicious crowd routed out a colored family from a block that ordered on a Negro neighborhood.  Even colored families that had lived for years in one place were now intimidated and forced to move.  Usually this was done by quiet means—they merely received threatening letters and vigorous warnings.  Then came the case of Dr. Turner.

Like Dr. Sweet, Dr. Turner is a colored physician and surgeon.  He had bought a house in a neighborhood, almost twenty miles from the one in which Dr. Sweet’s home is.  When he moved in, a crowd gathered, broke every one of his windows, tore many of the tiles of his roof, and ripped the lamps down from his ceiling.  More, they backed a van up to his door, pitched his furniture into it, and at the point of a gun made him sign away his interest in the property.  His wife, more spirited, refused to sign.  The angry crowd took to stones, literally tore p his Lincoln car and the Turners barely escaped with their lives.

“Turner,” commented Dr. Sweet, fine irony in his tone, “always had the greatest confidence in the word of white people; he felt that they belonged to a race superior to his own.  Consequently, when they wanted to enter his house, to rob him, it wasn’t necessary to break down the door.  It was simpler to deceive him.  One of the leaders simply knocked, and when Dr. Turner came to the door said, ‘Open Turner, I’m your friend.’  Turner believed him and opened the door.  The next moment he was dough in the hands of the mob.”

Now Sweet had bought his home before this Turner episode occurred.  Less than two weeks afterwards, V. A. Bristol, a colored undertaker, was forcibly prevented from occupying his property.  Bristol, it seems, had bought his lot years ago before Sweet had even finished his medical course. As time rolled by, and land increased in value, Bristol decided to build a house—to rent to white people.  The two white families that occupied it in succession took advantage of the fact that their landlord was a Negro, and would not pay their rent.  As he could neither afford to lose their money nor bring a steady succession of lawsuits, Bristol at last made up his mind to rent to colored people.  But every time a colored tenant was ready to move in, the neighborhood intimidated him.  There was the house—empty.  His money was tied up in house and lot.  He concluded that there was only one solution for him—to move into the house himself.  In his particular case, it was the women, presumably wives of Klansmen, who were most on the rampage.  One woman went so far as t stand on a box and shout hysterically, “If you call yourselves men and are afraid to move these niggers out, we women will move them out, you cowards!”

Other cases followed, but I will tell you of only one more, that of Fletcher, a waiter.  The man next door to the house into which he moved had just had two tons of coal delivered.  Not a piece of it was left, by the time the crowd had finished its demonstration.  Terrified Fletcher shot and wounded one of his tormentors in the leg.  But as it chanced, he had friends high in power and never was indicted.  It is significant, that since the Sweet trouble, no colored family has been molested.

What was happening was that little so-called Neighborhood Improvement Associations were springing up all over Detroit.  Their avowed purpose was, of course, to further and support neighborhood improvement in general, but their real reason for being was to keep their vicinities free from Negroes. 

The man who lectured at the organization of the Improvement Association in Turner’s neighborhood was the very man, Dr. Sweet said, who came to lecture at the organization of the Improvement Association in the Sweet’s neighborhood, near Waterworks Park.  He spoke at the Howe School, diagonally across the home Sweet had bought in June.  He spoke moreover to an overflowing meeting.  In fact, it was such a large meeting that they were compelled to move into the schoolyard itself.
Unobserved, many white Negroes were purposely in the audience, but when the trial came up, it was not necessary to call any of them as witnesses for the reason that the State’s witnesses admitted that one of the chief purposes of the Waterworks Park Improvement was to keep out Negros from that neighborhood.
As I understand it, these people, some of whom are foreigners, were not particularly hostile to Negroes until they were all stirred up by this meeting, which many of them had attended in the first instance merely out of curiosity. But by the time they had been made to feel their own infinite superiority to a quiet law-biding American family (for three generations—since slavery at least—the Sweets and Mitchells have lived in this country); by the time these noble nordics had been made to realize what a terrible thing it would be for them and their property (if they had any), if a well-bred, well-educated, well-off family were all ready to start trouble.  Such movements, it is scarcely necessary to remind you, like revivals, so in waves.  Fundamentally, people are like sheep.  Evidently, the people in Detroit are no exception.  The bitterest man in the neighborhood, it may interest you to know, was an Assyrian.

The Shooting

Now perhaps you have a prettty clear idea of the general state of Dr. Sweet’s mind as he sat that hot September evening playing cards with his acquaintances, while Gladys with the boy’s help got supper, Mack looked after the car; and Murray did those last bits of cleaning that round up a day’s work, intending as soon as supper, to go home.  I want you, if you can, to put yourself in the Doctor’s place, for I have yet to mention the case casually to a Detroit that I do not hear the same comment given in a hard tone:  “He was warned, he knew what he was getting into, and he went right ahead and invited trouble.”  Apparently, it does not strike them that to warn a man not to enter his own home is the very height of lawlessness.  I want to impress upon you this: that Dr. Sweet has not only race consciousness, but a race conscience.  He felt keenly that each Negro who allowed himself to be driven from his home made it that much harder for the next Negro to own desirable property.  It was high time for someone to have more firmness and courage than had been shown heretofore by any any of the intimidated Negros.  It was time, too, for someone to have more faith in the right of an American citizen.  It is those rights, let me remind you, not merely the Sweets themselves, that are now on trial, and for which Clarence Darrow fights.

Gladys was having roast pork—fresh ham they call it up here—baked sweet potatoes, mustard greens, and had beaten up a cake, which, with ice cream and coffee, was to be dessert.  From time to time she noticed the men as they played, because as her dining-room table had not yet arrived, she wanted, as soon as they finished their game, to use the card table for their dinner.  It was a dinner that was never to be eaten.

Suddenly she and Harry heard an exclamation, “My God, look at the people!”

Gradually they had been gathering as they came from work.  Looking through the windows and screen door, the Sweets and their friends saw a crowd that even as they watched grew from instant to instant.  Already the schoolyard was full!  So was the space around the grocery store!  People were in the alley, on the porches of the two-flat houses opposite!  Cars were coming and parking—two deep—and people were no longer moving.  They were a seething, staring, shouting mob.  Stones bean to fly, and to add to all the tension, the air grew heavier and hotter.  With Turner’s and Bristol’s experiences vividly before them, all the lynchings of which the surrounded Negros had heard and which with their own eyes they had seen and heard with their own eyes they had seen, surged into their minds. Fear griped them.

The temper of the crowd can be judged from the fact that three Negros on their way home were attacked as they passed, in their car, on the outskirts of the mob.  The police, some of them property owners in that very neighborhood, either could not, or at least did not, make any effort to disperse the gathering which was rapidly taking on the intensity of feeling and hysteria that ends in a riot.  In the midst of the tension, a taxi chugged up and out steed Davis and Dr. Otis Sweeet.  They had not known, until they approached the vicinity, what was transpiring.  Naturally, their first impulse was to rally to the Sweets, who were only too obviously in grave danger.  The two young men fled into the house under a literal barrage of stones, coal, rocks and brick bats of every kind and description.

 “Niggers!  Niggers!”  the crowd shouted  “they’re niggers—Get ‘em!  GET THE DAMN NIGGERS!”

 In the turgid atmosphere, the hot, tired crowd that for more than an hour (it was now about eight o’clock) expectantly had been waiting for something exciting to happen, eagerly took up the cry.  It was a match to dynamite.
 It was this cry that Dr. Sweet heard as he courageously opened the door for his brother and Davis.  “When I opened the door,” he said, “to let them in, I realized that for the first time in my life I stood face to face with that same mob that had haunted my people throughout its entire history.  I knew that my back was against the wall, that I was black, and that because I was black and had found the courage to buy a home, they were ready to wreak their vengeance upon me.  The whole thing,” he added with a quiet, dramatic intensity that even now gives me the shivers, “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.”  Henry expressed the same thought more simply:  “It looked like death if we tried to hide, and it looked like death if were tried to get out.  We didn’t know what to do.”

What they did do was to pull down the blinds and simply wait, hoping against hope, panic-stricken in the half dark.  Up to this point the mob had been merely vicious and noisy.  A window had been broken and the stones had been falling.  It was enough to strike terror to the bravest heart, but from the time Otis and Davis went in, it became a riot.  The little group within the house felt desperate.  When shouts rang out and they thought they were actually being fired upon by angry, excitement-hungry mob, they scattered wildly to different parts of the house.  Crowded to the wall, attacked, they were in danger of their own lives.  Shots were fired now from within as well as from without.  Pandemonium reigned.

The Arrest

In the midst of it a group of policemen entered the house.  With the mob still outside, they flung up all the shades, turned on all the lights, recklessly exposing every Negros in the house to full view, and arrested them all.  Roughly—with the notable exception of one policeman, Mr. Hays, of whom the Sweets speak most gratefully—the officers hustled the men into a hastily summoned patrol wagon which took them to police headquarters.  The crowd was now handled peremptorily enough.  Soon Mrs. Sweet was taken, by the way of the front door, to a Ford car.  As she stepped into it the people jeered and applauded.  She, also, was driven to the station. 

 It was there that she and the others learned for the first time that a man had been killed, and a boy wounded.  They asked to be allowed to use the telephone to call a lawyer, but this request was refused.  Instead they were taken separately and questioned one another from ten o’clock until between three and four in the morning, at which time, they were told they were all charged with murder.  Late Thursday afternoon, they were formally indicted for the murder of Leon Breiner and for assault  (with intent to kill) upon Eric Houghberg.

Sweet Trials Page