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On this day in 1925: Man killed during mob attack on Black physician’s Detroit home

By: - September 9, 2021 5:43 am

Ossian Sweet Home | Ken Coleman

On Sept. 9, 1925, a white mob attacked the Detroit home of Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African-American physician. The Sweet residence was located in a predominantly white neighborhood on the city’s lower eastside. 

Sweet bought the home located at 2905 Garland Street in June of that year for $18,500, about $6,000 more than its fair market value, according to historian Kevin Boyle, author of “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age.” 

Born in 1895 in Orlando, Fla. to tenant farmers, Sweet earned a medical degree from Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C. After graduating in 1921, he moved to Detroit. During that period, many Blacks were moving north to Detroit from southern states in what has been described as the Great Migration. 

The city’s number of Blacks residents increased from 5,741 in 1910 to 120,066 in 1930. That year, they made up 7.6% of the city’s 1.5 million people, according to U.S. Census records.

In the days leading up to the attack, the Sweet family endured continual racist badgering and taunts from their white neighbors. A reporter for the Detroit News who was on the scene at the time of the shooting indicated that the hostile crowd was as large as 500. 

Leon Breiner, a white man, was killed. The Sweet family and friends stood trial for murder, as the shots that killed Breiner came from inside the Sweet house. The defendants, which included Ossian’s brother, Henry, were supported first by Black lawyers Cecil Rowlette, Julian Perry and Charles Mahoney. Later they were represented by a team led by Clarence Darrow, a white lawyer who became famous during the “Scopes Monkey Trial” challenging a Tennessee ban on teaching evolution in schools.

Ossian Sweet Home | Ken Coleman

The Detroit Free Press published an interview in November 1925 in which Sweet revealed details of the incident. 

“We were playing cards; it was about 8:00 when something hit the roof of the house,” said Sweet.  

“Stones kept hitting the house intermittently. I threw myself on the bed and lay there a short while — perhaps 15 or 20 minutes – when a stone came through the window. Part of the glass hit me,” he told the Free Press.

Sweet described the situation as “pandemonium.”

“When I opened the door and saw the mob, I realized that I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people throughout its entire history,” said Sweet. 

The first trial ended in a hung jury in 1925. The defendants were acquitted by all-white jury of men in 1926. Frank Murphy, a Detroit Recorder’s Court judge, presided over both cases. He went on to become Detroit mayor, Michigan governor and a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice.

In March 1960, Sweet died from a gunshot wound in an apparent suicide. He was 64. He had suffered severe financial challenges and ill health. He also endured the deaths of his wife, Gladys, at age of 27 of tuberculosis, and his brother, Henry.

The Ossian Sweet House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. A state of Michigan Historical Marker was erected on July 22, 2004. 

On Thursday, a city of Detroit historical marker will be unveiled at the site of the former Sweet home.  

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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