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Sweet Trials: 1925-26

Menacing Crowd Gathers, Darrow For The Defense

Defendants: Ossian and Henry Sweet
Crimes Charged: Conspiracy to commit murder and murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Clarence Darrow, Arthur Garfield Hays, and Thomas Chawke
Chief Prosecutors: Robert M. Toms and Lester S. Moll
Judge: Frank Murphy
Place: Detroit, Michigan
Dates of Trials: First trial: November 1925; second trial: April-May 1926
Verdicts: First trial: Mistrial/hung jury; second trial: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The Sweet trials revealed the growing racial tension in northern and Midwestern cities following World War I, and provided a dress rehearsal for more such episodes during the Civil Rights era 30 years later.

During the First World War, thousands of African-American families moved from the south to the industrial cities of the north, such as Detroit, in search of high-paying, wartime jobs. While they found the employment that they were after, they also learned that they had not escaped the racism that they had experienced in the southern states. Northern white attitudes were hostile to the black newcomers, and northern society and neighborhoods remained closed to them. The few neighborhoods in which these African-Americans settled soon grew overcrowded and filthy.

Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black Detroit physician, moved to the city in 1924, after studying for a time in Vienna and Paris, where he had worked with Marie Curie. Having recently married and fathered a child, he wished to avoid the slums and find decent housing. By 1925, one or two black friends of his had bought homes in white neighborhoods, but they soon left in the face of white hostility. Sweet was determined not to let the same thing happen to him.

In the summer of 1925, Sweet found a house at 2905 Garland Avenue, in a lower-middle-class, white neighborhood. The sellers were a white woman and her light-skinned, black husband. Perhaps this made Sweet think that the neighbors would accept him and his family, but in reality (as events would later show) the neighbors had probably thought the husband was white. At any rate, Sweet moved in with the help of his brothers, Otis and Henry, as well as a few friends. Among his possessions were enough guns and ammunition for the entire group—just in case they were needed—when the Sweet family moved in on September 8.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940