Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet by Clarence Darrow

An Impressive Career

His supportive parents sent young Ossian, at age 13, to Xenia, Ohio, to complete his education. This was an ambitious undertaking for the Sweet family as the typical schooling for blacks in Barstow, Florida was four months a year, to the eighth grade only, in an inferior school. Eventually, Ossian graduated from Wilberforce University in 1917. It is worth noting that this was an exceptional accomplishment, since, out of some 10 million blacks in the United States, fewer than 2,000 were enrolled in college.

Poor eyesight kept him out of World War I, so he was able to continue his education in medical school at Howard University in Washington, DC, receiving his MD degree in 1921. During his years at Howard, he was caught in the middle of the Washington race riots of 1919.

Upon graduation, no white hospital would take him as an intern, no white patients would seek him out, and, like all blacks, he could not join the American Medial Association. Since he had once spent a summer in Detroit as a bellhop at a hotel, he moved to that city, where a large black population provided a pool of patients. Over half a million blacks had migrated North in 1917 alone; Detroit's black population had increased by 600% in the decade between 1910 and 1920. Opportunity, then, for a new medical school graduate, seemed to exist in cities like Detroit.

Mrs. Gladys Sweet
Mrs. Gladys Sweet

Established in Detroit, with a flourishing practice, Ossian met Gladys Mitchell, and in late 1922, they were married. Intent on obtaining the post-graduate training denied him by America's white hospitals, Ossian took his new bride to Europe, and spent a year studying in Vienna and Paris. It was a magical year for the Sweets. The discrimination that they experienced in their native land was absent, and Ossian reveled in the new information about medical procedures that he received at the Sorbonne. In June 1924, with their new infant daughter, the Sweets returned home. It had been a magical year, one that would contrast sharply with the realities of being a black doctor in a city rife with the workings of the Ku Klux Klan.

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