Detroiters connect 1920s to 2020s in new Dr. Ossian Sweet documentary

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Rayvin Baxter, whose grandparents previously owned the Ossian Sweet House, stands with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. (Photo by Valaurian Waller)

A white mob in America isn’t just a 2021 insurrection or 2020 election story; Black Detroiters have faced mobs of white people since the early 1900s. 

On Sept. 8, 1925, Dr. Ossian Sweet and his family moved into a home on Detroit’s east side. At the time, Sweet and other Black professionals were moving out of overcrowded Black neighborhoods like Black Bottom and into white neighborhoods. However, during the Sweets’ first evening at their new home, a mob of white residents gathered outside, screaming and throwing rocks to force the family out.

The Ossian Sweet documentary will include Detroit voices like local historian Jamon Jordan, City Clerk Janice Winfrey, and Mayor Mike Duggan. (Photo by Valaurian Waller)

The Sweets protected themselves by firing shots into the mob, killing one person. Dr. Sweet and his brother were arrested and taken to jail. The violence that evening invoked landmark trials in Detroit with the help and support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

Now, the history of the Sweet family will be shared in a new documentary that connects what happened in 1925 to the present. Daniel Baxter grew up in the Ossian Sweet House. Baxter is an elections expert who consulted for the City’s Elections Department in 2020, when a predominantly white mob stormed the TCF Center as votes in the presidential election were being counted. Baxter and his family are producing the documentary in hopes of sharing it with the community and Detroit youth, specifically. The documentary will be made available on the BridgeDetroit website, among others, later this month. 

Daniel Baxter grew up in the Ossian Sweet House on Detroit’s east side. (Photo by Valaurian Waller)

“I have the opportunity to be the gatekeeper of this story because of my mother,” Baxter said while walking through the rooms of his childhood home. 

Baxter became the family storyteller at age 10, when his father refused to speak to a news reporter after his words had been misinterpreted in a previous story about the home’s history. Since then, Baxter continues to share the story of Dr. Sweet, acknowledging the sacrifices the Sweets made that have made a difference for Detroit homeowners today. 

The Sweet House has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985. The National Park Service and others announced a $500,000 grant to preserve the home in 2018. Some of the rooms in the house have been remodeled and include quotes and photographs of well-known Black creatives, such as Langston Hughes and Lena Horne. 

Baxter recalled a time when he was ill, sleeping in his parents’ bedroom, the same room where the Sweets tried to protect themselves from outsiders, as his mother prayed over him. It’s the room Baxter says visitors request to see most. Baxter said his mother’s strength made him think of Sweet’s wife, Gladys, who has been described as being a pillar of strength on that evening in 1925.

The documentary includes Detroit officials: Chief Judge William McConico, Detroit historian Jamon Jordan, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and Judge Mark Slavens, among others. 

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Jordan gives a detailed history of Detroit’s neighborhoods and explains why moving into all-white neighborhoods was significant. Black Detroiters were banned — by covenants that forbid properties from being sold to anyone but white people  — from moving to most city neighborhoods. Judges McConico and Slavens explain the court processes and how Sweet’s murder trial made a difference for local elections and the law. 

Additionally, the Baxter family awarded a $2,000 scholarship to a Southeastern High School student for academic excellence on the first day of filming. 

“Our main objective is to make sure students are acknowledged and included,” said Rayvin Baxter, Daniel’s daughter. “The school is right down the street and it’s good for students to know what’s going on not only in their community, but the history itself.” 

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