Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet by Clarence Darrow

Pursing the American Dream

The essence of the case begins when Dr. Sweet, a successful doctor serving the African-American population in Detroit in 1925, had the temerity to purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood. It was an attractive two-story arts-and-crafts bungalow at 2905 Garland Avenue. In his testimony, Dr. Sweet said, "I had hoped to have a home for my baby a place where she could attend school and her environments would be healthy and helpful. It was for her sake that my wife and I determined to sacrifice many things in life so that our little one would have the best advantages possible." It was, for a highly educated professional man and his family, an attempt to pursue the American Dream.

Sweet home, 1926
Sweet home, 1926

Dr. Sweet was not the first black to buy a house in one of Detroit's all-white neighborhoods. Another physician and colleague of Sweet's, Dr. Alexander Turner, had been driven from his home and forced to sell his newly acquired house. The opposition to Dr. Turner had been led by a KKK-backed organization called the Tireman Avenue Improvement Association, a quickly formed civic group that heard exhortations from white supremacists to keep their neighborhood pure. All of this was taking place in the summer of 1925, during a vicious election campaign that featured the rise of the Klan. The election was driven by efforts to elect Klan-sympathetic council members and to reelect an ambivalent mayor, a man who espoused equality but needed the backing of the KKK to get elected.

Garland Avenue learned from the success of the Tireman Avenue Improvement Association. At the Julia Ward Howe School, a few hundred yards from the Sweet house, they formed the Waterworks Improvement Association. This group had nothing to do with waterworks and everything to do with emulating the Tireman Avenue group. At a stormy meeting at the Howe school, the Waterworks Improvement Association heard from the group that had ousted the presumptuous Turner from their midst.