As tens of thousands of people viewed the virtual State Board of Canvassers meeting on Monday, they may have seen Daniel Baxter, who helped to lead the city of Detroit’s absentee vote counting process earlier this month at TCF Center. He was among those interviewed during the marathon meeting that resulted in the certification of Michigan’s presidential election votes.
What some viewers may not know is that Baxter’s family has owned the historic Ossian Sweet home located on Detroit’s east side since 1958. It is the site where a white mob converged on the home of Sweet, an African-American physician in 1925. The incident and subsequent legal proceedings are considered by historians as seminal when it comes to the study of U.S. race relations.
The bungalow was located in a predominantly white neighborhood at 2905 Garland Street at the corner of Charlevoix on the city’s lower east side. After moving into the home, the Sweet family endured continual race-related badgering and taunts from their white neighbors. A demonstration outside the home resulted in a white man, Leon Breiner, being killed and 11 friends and members of the Sweet family stood trial for murder. The group included Ossian, his wife Gladys, and his brothers Henry and Otis.
Detroit was a very different place in 1925. The Ku Klux Klan had a significant presence in the city, backed candidates for public office, and recruited members during rallies. Only 4% of the city’s 993,678 residents were African American, according to the 1920 U.S. Census.
However, Black people were moving to Detroit in huge numbers. Their population by 1930 soared to 120,000.
In the early days after the incident, attorney Charles Mahoney, a leading lawyer during the first half of the 20th century, served as attorney for the defendants. He was joined by fellow legal counsel Julian Perry with Cecil Rowlette. All three lawyers were African American.
Concerned that Black attorneys may not be able to persuade a white jury, the NAACP later recruited Clarence Darrow, a noted counsel who was white, to represent the defendants. Frank Murphy presided over the case as the judge. Murphy would later serve as Detroit mayor, Michigan governor, U.S. attorney general and U.S. Supreme Court justice.
The jury, composed of 12 white men, deliberated. After 46 hours of review and debate, the legal proceeding ended in a mistrial. Seven of the jurors wanted a manslaughter conviction for Ossian and Henry Sweet, five argued for an acquittal. As for the other defendants, the vote was 10 to two in favor of acquittal.
Ultimately, Ossian and Henry were acquitted in the second trial held the following year. The jury in the second trial was also all white.
Ossian Sweet seemingly never really got over the ordeal. He lost his first wife Gladys to tuberculosis and pneumonia. He failed in several attempts at becoming an elected public official. And then, in an ironic twist on March 20, 1960, the man who took an oath as physician “to abstain from doing harm” committed suicide. He was 64.
A Michigan Registered Historic Marker sits firmly on the front lawn of the Sweet home. Baxter’s family, with help from the city of Detroit, has secured a $500,000 federal grant to transform the structure into a permanent visitation site.
Baxter, who was born in 1965, did not get a chance to meet Ossian Sweet but he knows the importance of preserving the home.
“While he may not have ever thought of himself as trailblazing,” said Baxter during a February WDIV-TV interview about Sweet and the restoration of the home, “we do.”