As Eli Day noted in Mayor Duggan, Revitalization, and Things Unmentioned, the housing and neighborhood redevelopment policies implemented by Mayor Duggan and the Detroit Housing Authority are the latest chapter in a long history of housing discrimination in Detroit. During the Great Migration, the municipal government worked with real estate associations and white residents, to redline Black people out of white neighborhoods in using various methods including restrictive covenants, racial codes, and neighborhood associations. The racial tensions and racial discrimination associated with housing in Detroit lasted until the late 1960s, when white flight replaced coexisting segregation in Detroit. The story of Dr. Ossian Sweet provides a great illustration of how neighborhood associations helped to exclude Black Detroiters from housing options in the city during the 1920s.
Ossian Sweet earned his medical degree at Howard University. In 1921, he set up a practice in Black Bottom, inside Palace Drugs – a black-owned pharmacy. This location allowed Dr. Sweet to a sign. # of Black Detroiters, since 2/3 of the city’s Black population lived in or near Black Bottom. Dr. Sweet left in 1993 to study in Vienna and Paris, then returned to Detroit and worked at Dunbar Hospital. After saving money, Dr. Sweet bought his family a home at 2905 Garland, in an all-white neighborhood at Garland and Charlevoix. It was a working class neighborhood, but the Sweet’s had a hard time finding a real estate agent and a family willing to sell them a house because they were Black. The Sweet’s paid $6,000 more than the fair market value of house because of the racial discrimination they faced.
At the time, the real estate market and neighborhoods themselves were committed to excluding Detroit’s Black population. These groups were very hostile toward Black families attempting to move into all-white neighborhoods. Restrictive covenants and racial codes facilitated the redlining of Detroit’s neighborhoods, keeping housing ownership out of Black hands. There were also neighborhood associations that were dedicated to keeping Black Detroiters out of white neighborhoods. These associations used slogans like “join the fight for the value of our homes” – thinly veiled racist epithets that were ironic, considering that Black Detroiters actually raised property values when they moved into neighborhoods, since they were willing to pay much more than whites were for homes.
The Waterworks Park Improvement Association was the neighborhood association of the area where Dr. Sweet’s home was located. This neighborhood association reached its height of power in 1925 – the year Dr. Sweet and his family moved into their home. Prior to the Sweet incident, the Waterworks Improvement Association pulled together mobs that violently forced Vollington Bristol and Dr. Alexander Turner out of homes they purchased in all-white neighborhoods. The day after Dr. Sweet moved into his Garland street home, approx. 500 angry whites collected outside his home. Sweet had nine armed men in the house with him, in order to protect himself, his family and his property against the mob. The mob rushed at two Black people invited over by Sweet, and began throwing rocks – breaking an upstairs window. Two shots were fired from the upstairs window, killing one white man and wounding another. Both men were part of the mob outside Dr. Sweet’s home.
The eleven people in Dr. Sweet’s home were arrested and charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The first trial of the defendants resulted in a hung jury. In the second trial Dr. Sweet’s brother Henry was found not guilty, and the third trial of the remaining defendants also resulted in a not guilty verdict. The defense attorney Clarence Darrow secured these wins by arguing that the racial violence and tension of the time made it almost certain that the mob outside Dr. Sweet’s home was there with malicious intent. Based on these tensions, Darrow argued that it was reasonable for Dr. Sweet and the people in his home to fear for their lives and protect themselves however possible.
As we look to the future and fight for the inclusion of our community in the "new" Detroit, we are encouraged by Ossian Sweet's story and we are energized by the reminder that this fight does not start and end with us. Though there are attempts to exclude longtime Black Detroiters from the redevelopment of our city, we will use the stories of Dr. Sweet, Vollington Bristol, Alexander Turner as inspiration. These men and many others fought to ensure that Detroit's Black community could share in all of the opportunity that the city has to offer; we will continue this fight.