OSSIAN SWEET - A Bridge to Equality For All Races



  • Ossian Sweet, though perhaps not as well known as other factors in equality for other races (African Americans in particular), is nonetheless one of the most important steps taken towards equality, however unintentional it may have been at the time.
  • Ossian Sweet was the first African American to be charged with murder, go on trial with an all-white jury presiding and getting acquitted despite all of these odds.
  • This aided in unifying the country by slowly breaking down racial barriers that had plagued America for countless years.
  • Ossian Sweet's trial still impacts us today. Had he not been acquitted, it is possible that racial differences would still play a role in deciding a defendant's guilt. After all, if racial bias had been allowed to continue through the Sweet trials, then there is no telling how far in time it would have continued.

BACKGROUND -


Ossian Sweet was the son of a former slave in Florida; all his life, he was haunted by the same racism that would eventually put him on trial.Ossian_Sweet.gif

  • At the age of six, Sweet was witness to the gruesome murder of a black man accused of raping a white girl. Even long after the fact, Sweet could recall exact details from the event because of how horribly it traumatized him.
  • Determined to overcome the "inevitable" fate of a Southern black (i.e. never get a good education and sharecrop for one's entire life), Sweet pursued an education in the North. He eventually ended up at Howard University to study medicine in Washington D.C. after a life of hard work. Here, Sweet saw a race riot break out just several blocks away that ended with six dead and over a hundred wounded.
  • After graduating from Howard University, Ossian Sweet moved to Detroit. Because the slums had such poor medical care, he quickly managed to stake out a living for himself and get a feel for the job.
  • Ossian Sweet studied abroad in France following his marriage to Gladys Mitchell in 1921. In France, he was mostly treated as an equal by the whites, with the exception of one notable instance when the American Hospital, a place Sweet had donated a fairly large sum of money to, refused to reserve a space for Sweet's wife, who had gone into labor, because white Americans wouldn't want to be mixed with black ones.
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    Gladys Sweet, Ossian's wife. Like Sweet, she was detained for a time for the murder; however, she was bailed out.
  • Returning to America in 1924, Sweet worked at a hospital in Detroit and saved up enough money to buy a better house -- in a white neighborhood. Though he knew what dangers accompanied this move, it didn't stop him for wanting a better life outside of the Detroit slums.
  • Buying the house itself was difficult: many people refused to sell the Sweets their house on account of his race, despite the fact Ossian Sweet was a well-educated professional doctor at that point and had outdone the majority of his colleagues at work (many of which were white). Once they settled in, they soon found out that their friends, relatives and acquaintances who tried to move into the same area had been under attack.
  • Afraid of an attack against his own family, Ossian Sweet took precautions and had several friends and relatives at his house to supply back-up, should any rioters attack. Sure enough, a mob soon emerged.

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The Sweets' House
THE CRIME -

  • The mob soon began throwing rocks at Sweet's house. One broke a window on the upper floor of the house. Retaliation was short but swift: gunshots rang out from the house, and two men in the mob were shot. One was merely wounded; the other died.
  • Just as quickly, the police were notified of the crime, and Sweet, along with his friends and relatives that had aided in the crime, were brought to the police headquarters. This included his wife, Gladys, and in total made their "group" number nine people.
  • Following the interrogation, they were detained in prison until the trial was over, with the exception of Gladys, who was bailed out and released thanks to her parents' friends. Many relatives and friends visited the eight men in prison and offered their support.

THE TRIAL -

  • The defendants faced murder charges, but that wasn't all; the judge presiding over their trial was a white man who denied Sweet's plea to have the case dismissed, and their jury would be all-white.
  • Prior to the trial, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to support Sweet. The secretary for the organization had received word of the incident and saw it as a great opportunity to take a step forward in equal rights for blacks in America. They sent investigators in order to better help Sweet have a fair trial by collecting as much evidence as possible. In fact, the NAACP even got Clarence Darrow of Scopes Trial fame to represent the defendants in the upcoming trial.
  • The all-white jury voted to acquit all eight of the defendants, much to the surprise of the country.
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    The jury that presided over the Sweet Trials

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Frank Murphy, the judge for the Sweet Trials

LEGACY -

Not only did the "Sweet Trials" become immortalized in plays and books, but they demonstrated a huge step forward in civil rights. It was the first time in American history that a black man (in this case, eight of them) had been charged with murder and been successfully acquitted; furthermore, it was done by an entirely white jury. This showed that it was, in fact, possible for African Americans to have a fair trial even if everyone presiding in it was of a different race than the defendant.