19 July 2013

I got your "racism" right here.

Dr. Ossian Sweet could tell you a little about real racism...and about self-defense.

Dr. Sweet bought a home for his family commensurate with his status—the one at 2905 Garland. Ironically, the family selling the home—the Smith’s—was interracial, but Mr. Smith was so light-skinned that his neighbors assumed he was white; Sweet anticipated no troubles. Indeed, his wife’s parents lived in a white neighborhood. However, as soon as the residents near 2905 Garland learned of his race, trouble began. The Smiths were condemned for selling the home to a black and they warned the Sweets of the difficulties they would face. As soon as he purchased the residence, a block club was formed to keep him out. Dr. Sweet consulted other professional blacks who attempted integration, and realized that the Detroit police would likely offer little protection. Nevertheless, he informed the police of his intent to move into his new home. He expected trouble, so on his first night in this home—September 8, 1925—he asked his two brothers and a number of friends, including a federal narcotics agent, to spend the night with him. He and his friends prepared for hostilities by arming themselves with six revolvers, two rifles, a shotgun and, perhaps, as many as two thousand rounds of ammunition.

A crowd of whites gathered at the corner of Garland and Charlevoix on that evening, but there were eleven police officers present and no violence. Dr. Sweet still feared trouble would escalate, so he asked an additional three friends to join him for the evening of September 9. At some point, the crowd apparently became aggressive, loudly proclaimed that they would drive the Sweets out and began stoning the home. Dr. Sweet and the other armed men inside believed that the home was under siege, that they might be burned to death when the house was incinerated and that the Detroit police would offer no assistance. Shots rang out from the second-story dormer that you see. Instantly, one member of the crowd on Garland, Leon Breiner, was killed and another, Eric Hougberg, wounded in the thigh. At this point, police officers rushed the home and arrested all occupants, who were held without bail.

The city’s police chief demanded first degree murder charges but before going to trial, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People realized the fundamental importance of these events and came to Detroit to protect Dr. Sweet’s rights. Lynching was still frequently used in the South to kill blacks who were presumed guilty of criminal behavior or violating local racial mores. The NAACP feared that lynching would spread to the North and that blacks who did such things as moving into a white neighborhood would be killed. Spurning local black lawyers, the NAACP recruited former University of Michigan student, Clarence Darrow, to defend the occupants of Dr. Sweet’s home.


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