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Dr. Ossian Sweet house recipient of $500K Civil Rights grant

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Photo by Robin Runyan

In 1925, Dr. Ossian Sweet and his family moved into a home in Detroit’s East Village. Black families at that time were only allowed to live in certain neighborhoods in Detroit due to restrictive housing covenants. White residents often formed “Neighborhood Improvement Associations” at the time in order to drive black residents out of their homes. An angry mob of white residents gathered in front of Sweet’s house, throwing rocks and bricks at the house while the family hid inside. Fearing the safety of the home and the family, Sweet’s brother fired into the crowd, killing one and injuring another.

Photo by Robin Runyan

The trial that followed made history by bringing attention to housing discrimination across the country. Sweet’s family, supported by the NAACP, was represented by attorney Clarence Darrow, who argued that people had a right to protect their property. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, but Sweet was acquitted in a second trial, a great accomplishment for the lawyer and a historic verdict for the black community. Frank Murphy, future mayor of Detroit and governor of Michigan, presided as judge in the trial.

The City announced today that the Dr. Ossian Sweet house at 2905 Garland in East Village, along with two nearby homes, will be converted to a public visitation site due to a $500,000 award from the African-American Civil Rights program of the Historic Preservation Fund, the National Park Service, and the Department of the Interior. According to the Neighborhoods, exterior improvements will be made to the home, and a study will be commissioned on the neighborhood’s history and its relation to the Civil Rights movement. The site is both a national and state landmark.

Part of the Ossian Sweet house will be open to visitation and learning opportunities, and the grant will create a historic district around the home.

Photo by Robin Runyan

The site is privately owned by the Baxter family, who has lived in the house since 1958. Dan Baxter, Elections Director for the city, grew up in the house and remarked today that, “When history is your landlord, you have a greater responsibility to America and the world.” As a young boy, Baxter often tried to imagine what it must have felt like for the Sweet family as neighbors threw rocks and bricks at the house.

The plans are part of the greater Islandview/Villages neighborhood framework, which will include improved streetscapes and parks, along with housing stabilization. The city will first issue an RFP for the project, and expect improvements and planning to start in about 12-15 months.