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An electrifying story of the sensational murder trial that divided a city and ignited the civil rights struggle
In 1925, Detroit was a smoky swirl of jazz and speakeasies, assembly lines and fistfights. The advent of automobiles had brought workers from around the globe to compete for manufacturing jobs, and tensions often flared with the KKK in ascendance and violence rising. Ossian Sweet, a proud Negro doctor-grandson of a slave-had made the long climb from the ghetto to a home of his own in a previously all-white neighborhood. Yet just after his arrival, a mob gathered outside his house; suddenly, shots rang out: Sweet, or one of his defenders, had accidentally killed one of the whites threatening their lives and homes.
And so it began-a chain of events that brought America's greatest attorney, Clarence Darrow, into the fray and transformed Sweet into a controversial symbol of equality. Historian Kevin Boyle weaves the police investigation and courtroom drama of Sweet's murder trial into an unforgettable tapestry of narrative history that documents the volatile America of the 1920s and movingly re-creates the Sweet family's journey from slavery through the Great Migration to the middle class. Ossian Sweet's story, so richly and poignantly captured here, is an epic tale of one man trapped by the battles of his era's changing times. Arc of Justice is the winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
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Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Ohio State University, is the author of The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968. A former associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, he is also the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.
He lives in Bexley, Ohio.
WHERE DEATH WAITS
The streets of Detroit shimmered with heat. Most years, autumn arrived the first week of September. Not in 1925. Two days past Labor Day and the sun blazed like July. Heat curled up from the asphalt, wrapped around telephone poles and streetlight stanchions, drifted past the unmarked doors of darkened speakeasies, seeped through windows thrown open to catch a breeze, and settled into the city’s flats and houses where it lay, thick and oppressive, as afternoon edged into evening.1
Detroit had been an attractive place in the nineteenth century, a medium-size midwestern city made graceful by its founders’ French design. Five broad boulevards radiated outward like the spokes of a wheel—one each running east, northeast, north, northwest, and west—from the compact downtown. Detroit’s grand promenades, these boulevards were lined with the mansions of the well-to-do, mammoth stone churches, imposing businesses, and exclusive clubs. Between the boulevards lay Detroit’s neighborhoods, row after row of modest single-family homes interspersed with empty lots, waiting for the development that boosters continually claimed was coming but never seemed to arrive.2
The auto boom changed everything. Plenty of cities had automakers in the early days, but Detroit had the young industry’s geniuses, practical men seduced by the beauty of well-ordered mechanical systems and fascinated by the challenge of efficiency. German and French manufacturers had invented automobiles in the 1870s. It was Detroit’s brilliance to reinvent them. In the early days of the twentieth century, the city’s aspiring automakers had disassembled the European-made horseless carriages, studying every part, tinkering with the designs, searching for ways to make them work more smoothly and to manufacture them more cheaply. By 1914, when Henry Ford unveiled his restructured Highland Park plant north of downtown, the process was complete. Ford had created a factory as complex as the automobile itself, floor after floor full of machines intricately designed and artfully arranged to make and assemble auto parts faster than anyone thought possible. Three hundred thousand Model T’s rolled out of the factory that year, inexpensive, elegantly simple, utterly dependable cars for ordinary folk like Ford himself.3
Ford’s triumph triggered the industrial version of a gold rush. Other manufacturers grabbed great parcels of land for factories. The Dodge Brothers, John and Horace, started work on a complex large enough to rival Ford’s on the northeast side; Walter Chrysler built a sprawling plant on the far reaches of the east side, near the Detroit River; Walter O. Briggs scattered a series of factories across the city. Aspiring entrepreneurs filled the side streets with tiny machine shops and parts plants that they hoped would earn them a cut of seemingly unending profits. The frenzy transformed Detroit itself into a great machine. By 1925, its grand boulevards were shadowed by stark factory walls and canopied by tangles of telephone lines and streetcar cables. Once fine buildings were now enveloped in a perpetual haze from dozens of coal-fired furnaces.4
More than a decade had passed since Henry Ford, desperate to keep his workers on the line, doubled their wages to an unprecedented five dollars a day. Word of Detroit’s high-paying jobs had shot through Pennsylvania mining camps, British shipyards, Mississippi farmhouses, and peasant villages from Sonora to Abruzzi. Tens of thousands of working people poured into the city, lining up at the factory gates, looking for their share of the machinists’ dream. Eleven years on, they were still coming. In 1900, when Ford was first organizing his company, Detroit had 285,000 people living within its city limits. By 1925, it had 1.25 million. Only New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia were bigger, and Detroit was rapidly closing the gap. “Detroit is Eldorado,” wrote an awed magazine reporter. “It is staccato American. It is shockingly dynamic.”5
And it was completely overwhelming. While the auto magnates retreated to the serenity of their sparkling new suburban estates, working people struggled to hold on to a sliver of space somewhere in Detroit’s vast grid of smoke gray side streets. In the center city, where Negroes and the poorest immigrants lived, two, three, or more families shared tiny workmen’s cottages built generations before. Single men jammed into desperately overcrowded rooming houses, sleeping in shifts so that landlords could double the fees they collected for the privilege of eight hours’ rest on flea-infested mattresses. Beyond the inner ring, a mile or so from downtown, the nineteenth-century city gradually gave way to a sprawl of new neighborhoods. First came vast tracts of flats and jerry-rigged houses for those members of the working class lucky enough to find five-dollar-a-day jobs. Immigrants clustered on the east side of the city, the native-born on the west side, all of them paying premium prices for homes slapped up amid factories, warehouses, and railroad yards or along barren streetscapes. Workers’ neighborhoods blended almost imperceptibly into areas dominated by craftsmen and clerks, Detroit’s solid middle strata, who struggled mightily to afford the tiny touches that set them apart from the masses: a bit of distance from the factory gates, a patch of grass front and back. Finally, out near the suburbs’ borders lay pockets of comfortable middle-class houses, miniature versions of the mock Tudors and colonial revivals favored by the upper crust, so beyond the means of most Detroiters it wasn’t even worth the effort of dreaming about them.6
Garland Avenue sat squarely in the middle range, four miles east of downtown, halfway between the squalor of the inner city and the splendor of suburban Grosse Pointe. Despite its name, it wasn’t an avenue at all. It was just a side street, two miles of pavement running straight north from Jefferson Avenue, Detroit’s southeastern boulevard, to Gratiot Avenue, the northeastern boulevard.
In 1900, Garland was nothing more than a plan on a plat book, but developers had raced to fill it in. To squeeze out every bit of space, they cut the street into long blocks, broken by cross streets that could serve as business strips. Then they sliced each block into twenty or thirty thin lots 35 feet wide and 125 feet deep. A few plots were sold to families who wanted to build their own homes, the way working people always used to do. On the remaining lots, developers built utilitarian houses for the middling sort: long, narrow wood-frame, two-family flats, one apartment up, another down, each with its own entrance off a porch that ran the length of the front. Behind each house was a small yard, barely big enough for a garden, leading out to the alleyway; in front was a postage-stamp lawn running from the porch to the spindly elms planted at curb-side. Only a few feet of open space separated one building from another, a space so small that, from the right angle, the houses seemed to fade one into another, much as one machine seemed to fade into another along an assembly line.7
The people who lived up and down the street didn’t have the education, the credentials, or the polish of the lawyers, accountants, and college professors who lived in the city’s outer reaches. But they had all the attributes necessary to keep themselves out of the inner city, and that’s what mattered most. Of course, they were white, each and every one. The vast majority of them were American born, and the few foreigners living on the street came from respectable stock; they were Germans, Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotsmen, not the Poles or Russians or Greeks who filled so much of the east side. Some of them were native Detroiters, and virtually all the rest had come to the city from other northern states, so they knew how to make their way in the big city: they understood how to work their way into the trades, how to use a membership in the Masons or the Odd Fellows to pry open employment-office doors, how to flash a bit of fast talk to sway a reluctant buyer.8
Such advantages helped the people of Garland find solid jobs, a blessing in a city that burned through workingmen, then tossed them aside. A minority of the men worked as salesmen, teachers, and shop clerks, the sort of jobs that didn’t pay particularly well but kept the hands clean. A few more were craftsmen, the elite of the working class, trained in metal work or carpentry or machine repair and fiercely proud of the knowledge they carried under their cloth caps. Many more had clawed their way to the top rung of factory labor. They were foremen, inspectors, supervisors, men who spent their days in the noise and dirt of the shop floor making sure that others did the backbreaking, mind-numbing work required to keep shiny new cars flowing out of the factories.9
Most of the women worked at home. They rose early to make husbands and boarders breakfasts sufficient to steel them for a day of work, then bustled children off to school—the youngest to Julia Ward Howe Elementary, a brooding two-story brick building at the intersection of Garland and Charlevoix, three blocks north of Jefferson; the older ones to Foch Middle School and Southeastern High. Mornings and afternoons were spent shopping and sweeping and washing clothes streaked with machine oil and alley dirt. Their evenings were devoted to cooking and cleaning dishes while their husbands relaxed with the newspaper or puttered out in the garage.
No matter how many advantages the families along Garland Avenue enjoyed, though, it was always a struggle to hold on. Housing prices had spiraled upward so fearfully the only way a lot of folks could buy a flat or a house was to take on a crippling burden of debt. The massive weight of double mortgages or usurious land contracts threatened to crack family budgets. Men feared the unexpected assault on incomes that at their best barely co...
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