Dr. Ossian Sweet home to open to the public

Dr. Ossian Sweet was a prominent Black physician with a bachelor’s degree from Wilberforce University, a medical degree from Howard University, and he studied medicine in Paris. The grandson of a former slave owned his owned practice in the slums of Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood, yet he was not good enough to live amongst white auto workers on the city’s east side.

On September 9, 1925, an angry mob of over 500 white residents surrounded Dr. Sweet’s home that he purchased in June for three times the market value, trying to force him, his wife Gladys, younger brother Henry, and eight other occupants out of the home. Dr. Sweet decided to stand his ground, even with the protestors throwing rocks at the home, breaking windows. In fear that the mob would burn down the home, Henry Sweet fired shots into the crowd, wounding Erick Houghberg and killing Leon Breiner.

Lawyer Elliott Hall (left) and Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans (right) have a conversation on the front porch of the Sweet Home. PHOTO: Eric Hobson

In the 94 years since the incident, there have been a countless number of books and articles written about Dr. Sweet and that hot summer day. Now, for the first time, the home located at 2905 Garland will be open to the public for educational purposes. A private reception to make the announcement was held Monday on the 94th anniversary of the Sweet event, in the living room where Dr. Sweet and his family never had the opportunity to enjoy.

“My mom and dad are no longer with us, but they always wanted to expose the home to the public to allow others understand who Dr. Sweet was and what happened on this corner in 1925,” said Daniel Baxter, whose parents owned the home and has spearheaded the project. “It was a pleasure to be raised in this home, but there comes a time in our lives where history is our landlord and you have to open your doors up so that people can understand and appreciate whose shoulders we stand on.”

Daniel Baxter grew up in the Sweet Home and has spearheaded the project to restore the home at 2905 Garland. PHOTO: Eric Hobson

Among the dignitaries at the event included Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, whose grandfather, Albert Cleage Sr., was one of the founders of Detroit’s first Black hospital where Dr. Sweet practiced, Dunbar Hospital. Also in attendance were prominent attorneys Elliott Hall and Cornelius Pitts, Judge Victoria Roberts, and Dr. Sweet’s niece Jacqueline Spotts.

Baxter’s parents, William and Ruby, purchased the home in 1958. He was born there in 1965 and raised his family there as well. His mother passed away September 7, 2018, but not before her home was awarded a $500,000 federal grant to expand the historic district of the Dr. Ossian Sweet home and memorialize an authentic Detroit civil rights story.

Photos of Gladys and Ossian Sweet hang on the wall of the living room they never got to enjoy. PHOTO: Eric Hobson

That project will not begin until 2020, but Baxter said the plans are to have the house restored to its original state by early September. For the time being, Baxter and his family decided to display the history of those involved in the Sweet Trials with pictures of Dr. Sweet, his wife Gladys, prominent attorney Clarence Darrow, Judge Frank Murphy, NAACP executive secretary James Weldon Johnson, and Johnson’s lieutenant at the NAACP, Walter White, around the home.

“I love the photos on the wall, because it makes those who visit ask questions about their roles in the story of Dr. Ossian Sweet,” said Raven Baxter, President of the Dr. Ossian H. Sweet Foundation. “Even when you look at the furniture, it makes you ask more questions on who these people were and the history behind the home.”

Raven Baxter (right) shares a laugh with a neighbor, while a photo of James Weldon James hangs on the wall. PHOTO: Eric Hobson

When the preservation of the Dr. Ossian Sweet home is finished, those interested can take a tour by invitation and appointment. There will also be an interactive center in the basement of the home where storytelling and educational videos will take place. Daniel Baxter said the Dr. Ossian H. Sweet Foundation plans to make September 9 an annual community event for the neighborhood. The foundation also plans to have voter registration and education and students aspiring to go into science from nearby Southeastern High School will receive a scholarship.

“I’m elated about this project. It’s a dream come true,” he said. “This is something that was instilled in me by my mom when I was 10-years-old. It gave me an opportunity to learn more about Dr. Sweet, helping me understand whose shoulders I stand on, and we want to expose the community to the importance on this home and Dr. Sweet.”

All 11 occupants in the Sweet home the night of September 9, 1925  were put on trial that November. The first trial concluded with a hung jury and a mistrial by Judge Frank Murphy. During the retrial, Henry Sweet, was acquitted, along with Dr. Sweet and several other defendants.

Jacqueline Spotts of Bartow, Florida is the niece of Dr. Ossian Sweet. PHOTO: Eric Hobson

But life after the trials were not sweet at all for the Sweets. Their daughter Iva contracted tuberculosis (TB) and died months after her second birthday. Gladys Sweet contracted TB while in the Wayne County Jail and died in 1928 at age 27. Henry Sweet also died from TB in 1939. Dr. Sweet’s health began to decline as well, and he also began to fall into debt. He sold the home on Garland in 1958. March 20, 1960, Dr. Sweet committed suicide, ending years of trials and tribulations stemming from the murder case. But his life and story goes far beyond the tragic events he and his family dealt with because white people would not allow them to live the American Dream

“I want my uncle to be remembered as one who loved his people,” said Spotts, whose mother is Dr. Sweet’s sister. “I remember him during the 1940s until he died, when I would come over here during the summertime. He taught me about Civil Rights, politics, and racism and I am thankful that his legacy is being kept alive in a positive light.”

The Dr. Ossian Sweet Home was added to the State of Michigan Register of Historic Places in 1975, the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, and received a State of Michigan historical marker in 2004.

COVER PHOTO: Eric Hobson

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