The city of Detroit is asking developers to submit bids to rehab the Ossian Sweet House on the city’s east side – a Civil Rights landmark that commemorates one of the city’s most infamous racial hate attacks.
Dr. Ossian Sweet, a Black doctor, moved his family into a house on the corner of Charlevoix and Garland in 1925, when that area of the city was all white. Soon after moving in, a white mob of about 400 gathered on the corner to intimidate Sweet and his family. As the Sweets tried to defend the shots were fired at the mob from inside the house; one white man was killed and another was injured.
In 1926, Sweet and the other people inside the house were aquitted of murder in a landmark court case that paved the way for many advances in equal criminal justice for African Americans.
In 2018, The African American Civil Rights program of the Historic Preservation Fund at the National Park Service gave the city a $500,000 grant to rehab and repair Sweet’s house, which has fallen into disrepair. There are several cosmetic repairs needed outside and inside the home, which was named to the National Registry of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1985.
Detroit’s Housing and Revitalization Department is looking for developers and contractors who are interested in rehabbing the house.
D’marco Ansari, a development specialist with the Public Private Partnership team with the Housing and Revitalization Department, said the Sweet house is an important piece of civil rights history.
“(The Sweet case) discusses everything that we’re dealing with now, the way our cities are built. If you’re talking about redlining and if you’re talking about African Americans not being able to get mortgages, where you live and why you live in those neighborhoods is really based on what happened here and the Dr. Sweet house was really the peak and the climax of that,” Ansari said.
Ansari said the city is prioritizing local and minority contractors during this bidding process. He also said a lot of people living in the city have lost sight of the struggles many Black people went through to own homes.
“That’s what we’re hoping to accomplish by renovating this house and bringing it back to its glory, to be able to have these kinds of discussions with people and let them know what was and is really going on,” he said.
Ansari said there have been “multiple discussions” around converting the house and some of the houses nearby to a museum space, but he said those potential plans are still in the early stages right now.
Daniel Baxter, an election administrator with the Detroit Department of Elections, is the current owner of the house. Baxter said when looking at what Dr. Sweet did, the best word that comes to mind is “trailblazer.”
“Dr. Sweet and his case are so significant because it was the first time in American history where it was declared a Black man has a right to protect his home,” Baxter said.
Baxter, whose family bought the house in 1958, said he loves telling the story of Dr. Sweet and what happened at the house to journalists, tourists and educators.
“I was one of the individuals along with my mom, my dad, my sisters and my brothers and my cousins, who were direct beneficiaries of what Dr. Sweet did, so I stand on his shoulders every time I share his story,” Baxter said.
Interested developers should call the Associate Director for the Office of Contracting and Procurement Toni Limmitt at 313-378-8362.
On the 23rd of June in 1925 the Turner family moved into a home on Spokane Avenue just off Grand River on Detroit’s west side. Dr. Turner was a surgeon, his wife a college educated musician, a seemingly good fit in this newly built upper middle-class neighborhood. Within hours of moving in, a mob of thousands had crowded the street, surrounding the house, hurling bricks and stones until every window was smashed in. The police arrived and eventually dispersed the crowd, no arrests were made. After agreeing to sell, the family moved out the next day under guard of the police as thousands stood by and watched.
The Turners were the first of several Black families that moved into exclusively white neighborhoods that summer in Detroit. Each time they were greeted by an increasingly hostile, violent mob of their white neighbors. These moves were intentional, meant to push back against the relatively new concept of race based covenants that had become increasingly widespread throughout Detroit and the surrounding developing areas.
Two weeks later and just a few blocks away on American another angry mob of thousands turns up at a house owned by Vollington Bristol. No stones or bricks were thrown this time, however several in the crowd were armed. Police officers responding to the scene reported hearing hundreds of shots from rifles, shotguns and revolvers. The police quickly dispersed the crowd, with some leaving their firearms behind. After seeing what had happened to the Turners, some private protection had been arranged by Vollington. While the police made no arrests of any of the armed white mob that were firing indiscriminately in a residential neighborhood, they did arrest 8 Black men for loitering – the men Vollington had hired.
Two days after that over on Stoepel avenue, John Fletcher and his family found themselves barricaded inside their new residence as a crowd of 4,000 pelted it with bricks, stones and lumps of coal. Already having a contingent of officers stationed on American to guard Bristol’s house, the police were stretched thin. Every window in Fletcher’s house was broken out, the interior was beginning to fill up with the steady stream of debris that had been thrown by the mob for the past half an hour. In desperation, John fired a shot from his rifle. 15 year old Leonard Paul, a member of the mob whom lived nearby was struck in the hip. The police arrived and took everyone inside the house in for questioning. The Fletchers returned the following day to collect what they could from the house and moved out less than 48 hours after moving in.
All three of these trailblazing families were facing violent, racist mobs months before Dr. Sweet moved onto Garland. You can’t visit the brief home of Dr. Turner, it’s in the westbound lane of the Jeffries freeway now. John Fletcher’s besieged residence is an empty lot. Perhaps some of that $500,000 to preserve Dr. Sweet’s story can be put to use telling theirs.
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