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The tragedy before triumph

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, Kevin Boyle, Henry Holt: 416 pp., $26

September 05, 2004|Steve Oney | Steve Oney is the author of "And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank," winner of the American Bar Assn.'s 2004 Silver Gavel Award for best book on the nation's legal system.

On the brutally hot evening of Sept. 9, 1925, a crowd of several hundred men and women, all of them white, gathered at Garland Avenue and Charlevoix Street, an intersection midway between Detroit's gritty urban center and Grosse Pointe, its richest suburb. A black couple had purchased the Craftsman bungalow that stood there. Though a dozen police officers were on hand to protect the newcomers and a group of black supporters -- who, unbeknown to the lawmen, were heavily armed -- the night quickly turned violent. Amid angry shouts, a barrage of rocks and coal chunks hit the house, shattering several windows. The responding fusillade of gunfire from within left a white foreman at the Continental Motor Co. dead and a young white plumber severely wounded.

The episode was both the culmination of months of racial tension in Detroit and the beginning of a series of courtroom and public relations battles that would engage black Americans nationwide and lead to the formation of the NAACP's influential Legal Defense Fund. At stake were two crucial issues: the right of blacks to buy homes in previously all-white neighborhoods and their right to take the same measures accorded to whites to protect themselves and their property. That each of the 11 black people in the bungalow at the time of the shootings was charged with first-degree murder made the matter more than academic.

The fascinating character at the center of this tale, which Kevin Boyle tells in "Arc of Justice" with thoroughness, flair and for the most part even-handedness, is Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black physician who in the summer of 1925 bought the house on Garland Avenue. In Boyle's account, Sweet emerges as an emblematic black American, one whose life is simultaneously a testament to the great successes enjoyed by members of the race during the early years of the 20th century and a reminder that those successes offered few of the guarantees to full citizenship taken for granted by whites.

A grandson of slaves and the namesake of a racially progressive white Florida governor named Ossian Hart, Sweet was endowed with a birthright of hope and despair. He was raised just outside of Orlando by proud, hardworking parents and grew up, in Boyle's perceptive turn of phrase, viewing their "aspirations [as] his obligations." In 1909, Sweet enrolled at Wilberforce University, near Xenia, Ohio, the nation's first private college dedicated to higher education for blacks. In 1917, after receiving his undergraduate degree, he took an even bigger step, entering Howard University's medical school in Washington, D.C., the country's foremost training facility for black physicians. After graduation, Sweet chose to practice in Detroit, where he'd spent summers working at odd jobs. Marriage to a well-bred local girl and a year in Vienna and Paris, where he studied under renowned neurosurgeon Anton von Eiselsberg and Nobel-Prize-winning radiologist Marie Curie, put an added polish on the newly minted medical degree, granting him entree to the group of elite black Americans that W.E.B. Du Bois had memorably christened "the talented tenth."

Notwithstanding Sweet's accomplishments, he was an uncertain young man. Unlike many other outstanding blacks of his generation, he was not the product of a sophisticated Northern city. His formative years were passed in the rural South, and he remained socially awkward. Moreover, his childhood was haunted by lynchings. In 1901, a 16-year-old black boy suspected of the rape and murder of a white woman was chained to a tree near the Sweets' home and burned to death by a white mob. Ossian, who was only 5 at the time, carried the memory of the atrocity with him for the rest of his days.

The hope, of course, was that Detroit, with its booming automobile industry and rapidly growing population, would be different, and in many ways it was. The city boasted a growing black middle class, and a number of its white leaders were racial moderates. Yet 1925 found Detroit in the throes of a campaign by the local Ku Klux Klan, with nearly 40,000 members, to take political control of city hall. The resulting atmosphere in white, working-class sections of town -- where, according to Boyle, homeowners lived in well-founded fear of the dizzying decline in property values that just one black neighbor would set off -- was exceedingly volatile. All that was needed was a spark.

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