September of 1925 in Detroit is exceptionally hot. The city is a bustling metropolis; the auto-industry boom transformed Detroit into a “great machine” and quadrupled its population over the first two decades of the 20th century. Wealthy factory owners live in pristine suburbs, Black people and poor immigrants live in the city center. Between them lie vast neighborhoods of working- and professional-class white people and immigrants, and a thin band of middle-class homes.
Here, progress is tied to economic success and expansion. By this metric, Detroit represents a sterling early 20th century success. Automobile manufacturing brings jobs, and work promises social and economic mobility—the definition of the American Dream. Still, the varyingly wealthy neighborhoods show the uneven path of progress and highlights that wealth accrues unevenly.
Garland Avenue sits between the city center and the luscious suburbs. It’s full of small homes on narrow, cramped lots. Its residents—all native-born white people or “respectable” immigrants (which means immigrants who aren’t Polish or Russian)—work hard to keep their families out of the inner city. Still, houses are expensive, and most people face job insecurity. And now a Black family plans to break into white territory.
The families who live in the neighborhood around Garland Avenue believe in the American Dream, trusting that their hard work has earned them the right to live in their modest homes. But their anger and fear at the prospect of Black neighbors—which are described as though they’re invading foreigners—betrays a belief that this mobility should be limited to native-born citizens or the immigrants they chose to include. This points to the fragility of justice when equal rights under law aren’t supported by social customs.
One hot September morning, the Black family arrives. By the time the neighborhood men and children arrive home from work and school, eight police officers loiter around the intersection. Curiosity and the intense heat draw neighborhood families outside in the evening. Ray and Kathleen Dove sit on their stoop as the street fills with curious adults and children. Leon Breiner arrives from his house (which is much more modest than the Black family’s) on the excuse of picking up some groceries at the corner market.
The modesty of the Black family’s American Dream—moving into a simple, working-class neighborhood rather than an exclusive suburb—points clearly to the limits prejudice and racism place on Black Americans.
Norton Schukenecht, the commander of the local police station, and his brother-in-law, Otto Lemhagen, guard the house that evening. As the crowd swells, its attitude turns sinister and Lemhagen can hear people wondering why the police don’t “drag those niggers out.” Meanwhile, a young man named Eric Houghberg puts on a clean set of clothes before joining the crowd on Garland Avenue.
The crowd’s words point to the racial hierarchy: white neighborhood residents expect the white police officers to support their efforts to intimidate the Black family. The fact that Eric Houghberg dresses up to join the angry mob points to the ways in which racialized violence, up to and including lynching, were often treated as social events by their perpetrators.
Inside the house, Dr. Ossian Sweet sits at a card table in the dining room. Only in his late 20s, he cultivates the look of a more mature man. He wears beautiful suits. He wants people to see that he is better educated and wealthier than most of the white people he encounters. Ossian grew up on his family’s farm in Florida, helping until his parents sent him to the North for an education. He worked as a servant to afford books and tuition, graduating from Howard University with his medical degree at age 25.
The book only introduces Ossian Sweet after building up the crowd outside and exploring its growing anger. In some ways, this suggests the unimportance of his humanity or individuality to the crowd outside; they don’t care about him as a person but despise him as a Black man. But it also subtly suggests the ways in which he will be subordinated and used as a tool by the many power players in the subsequent legal drama. Ossian represents an American Dream success story, at least at first, having overcome both poverty and racism to become a wealthy and respected doctor.
Ossian arrived in Detroit in 1921, built a medical practice in the Black Bottom neighborhood, and married Gladys. They honeymooned for a year in Europe while he completed postgraduate medical education. Despite his success, sometimes Ossian tries too hard to prove himself. And in the evening’s growing darkness, he feels not just insecurity but outright fear.
By buying the house on Garland Avenue, Ossian asserts his humanity and his civil rights, since the laws say that he can live in whatever house he can afford to buy. But the unwritten codes of segregation and prejudice very clearly say he should have stayed in Black Bottom. Ossian worries because he knows that crossing the color line in this way has consequences.
The house should have been one of Ossian’s greatest accomplishments. Gladys wanted a house with a yard for their daughter, Iva, to play in. The house itself exemplifies the arts and crafts style, having been built with great love and attention by its original owner. Because it has one more room than her family home, it also allows Gladys to feel the thrill of social advancement. Ossian loves the house because it sits in a neighborhood that’s better than the neighborhood where he practices. Established physicians like himself almost always live in better areas.
Home ownership, especially in the overheated housing market of rapidly expanding Detroit, shows perhaps better than anything else that a person has achieved the American Dream. By buying a gracious, charming, and large house in a white neighborhood, the Sweets claim that the American Dream should be available to everyone, regardless of their skin color.
Still, the racial violence Ossian has witnessed, both in Florida and Detroit, scares him. He knows that profession and wealth can’t protect him; recent murders in Arkansas and the destruction of race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida prove as much. But despite his fear, Ossian didn’t want to disappoint Gladys or appear cowardly to colleagues, including Dr. Edward Carter, who specifically encouraged him to buy the house.
Violence serves as a social means to perpetuate prejudice and segregation. The terrifying specter of race riots and lynchings reinforce the social status quo by making Black people afraid to cross the color line, as the many examples Ossian considers show. But he knows that protecting the house protects his human dignity as well.
The Great Migration ratcheted up racial tensions in Detroit. In the first half of 1925, the police—many of whom were also Klansmen—shot 55 Black people. In one event, policeman Proctor Pruitt shot Steve Tomkins, a Black man he’d long disliked, in cold blood while serving a summons. Pruitt claimed self-defense. And mobs committed violence, too: white mobs had attacked five Black families who moved into all-white neighborhoods. One of these incidents involved another doctor, Alexander Turner. He barely escaped with his life after opening his door to men pretending to be from the police.
Ossian takes a principled but very dangerous stand. He doesn’t just face the prejudice of the mob of white people outside, but also the essential injustice of a police force and legal system that fails Black residents in many ways. The specter of police violence in 1920s Detroit also points towards the slow and uneven pace of progress, since it’s still a social and political issue in America a century later.
Ossian heard Dr. Alexander Turner’s story from Alexander himself earlier in the summer. Nevertheless, friends and colleagues encouraged him to buy the house. Dr. Carter specifically told Ossian that white people were bullies who needed to be confronted. Gladys also refused to be intimidated, although her Northern upbringing, light skin, and proximity to white spaces offered her a more protected childhood than Ossian had.
Ossian and others interpret Turner’s loss of his home as a personal failure rather than as an example of the larger systems of prejudice and segregation that aid and abet violent mobs. Dr. Carter and Gladys’s attitude show that the house has already become symbolic to many people of taking a principled stand for the essential dignity and humanity of all Black people.
The Sweets wait to move in until after Labor Day, when a weekday arrival will draw less attention. And they plan to stay off the streets as much as possible—Gladys must even limit trips to the grocery store. The police department offers temporary security. But Ossian knows that he must defend his house, violently if necessary. He calls on his brothers Otis Sweet and Henry Sweet, and his friends Edward Carter, Julian Perry, William Davis, and John Latting for help.
Despite claiming a right to live where they please, the preparations Ossian and Gladys undertake demonstrate clear awareness of the potentially dangerous ramifications of breaching the color line. They may assert their civil rights, but they know that social practice often has more power than the law.
Ossian and Gladys Sweet move into the house midmorning on the 8th assisted by their chauffeur Joe Mack, a handyman named Norris Murray, and Otis, Henry, and Latting. Soon a policeman named Inspector McPherson knocks on the door to introduce himself. He assures Ossian that he’ll be alright as long as he acts like “a gentleman.” The Sweets unpack and receive visits from Gladys’ friends Edna Butler and Serena Rochelle. Anxieties only start to rise when the party realizes that darkness fell while they ate dinner. Policemen position themselves visibly around the house while hundreds of white people gather across the street.
Being able to hire a chauffeur suggests the Sweets have achieved the American Dream—but the fact they need police protection for their house points towards how fragile this ideal really is. Inspector McPherson’s suggestion that Ossian should adopt a compliant attitude, should be read in the context of the book’s claim that social customs (including terrorism against Black people) and legal policies work together to create and maintain racism. McPherson thus subtly reminds Ossian that the culture expects him to be deferential, rather than defend himself.
Ossian distributes weapons among the seven men in the house: Otis, Henry, Davis, Latting, Mack, Murray, and himself. Neither Julian Perry nor Dr. Edward Carter came—and Carter even called to beg off, indicating his fear of danger. The men arrange a watch rotation, snatching rest when they can without letting down their guard. The night passes uneventfully.
Ossian hasn’t prepared for compliance; he has prepared to defend what he believes to be rightfully his, with violence if necessary. The men who promised but failed to show up suggest the difficulty and danger of this task, despite encouraging Ossian to take it on.
The following morning, Joe Mack drives Ossian and Gladys to the furniture store. In the afternoon, Gladys visits her family and Iva, and Ossian sees patients. He can’t shake his anxiety about the coming night, which he shares during a chance call with his insurance broker, Hewitt Watson. Watson and two of his friends, Leonard Morse and Charles Washington, agree to join the night’s watch over the house.
The growing posse of defenders suggests that other Black Detroiters understand this isn’t just about the house on Garland Avenue; it’s about the larger assertion that Black people have the same humanity and should have the same rights as everyone else.
When Ossian drives from the decaying streets of Black Bottom to Garland Avenue that evening, to his great relief and surprise, he finds the street quiet. But in the kitchen, a frightened Gladys tells him that her friend Edna overheard a white woman threatening violence on the streetcar that morning. Ossian calls Henry and Lessing in from the front porch, admonishing them to avoid provoking the white neighbors. He sends Mack to ask Murray to join them again, and anxiously waits to see if any other defenders will arrive.
Ossian’s drive illustrates the importance of tearing down the color line that condemns Detroit’s Black residents to the rundown Black Bottom neighborhood. Nevertheless, the task is demanding and dangerous. While on the one hand Ossian feels entitled to live in the neighborhood, his efforts to minimize his (Black) family’s visibility there suggests how deeply rooted segregation and prejudice are in the culture.
In the kitchen, Henry helps Gladys prepare dinner. Henry possesses more charm than his aloof, formal brother Ossian. Nevertheless, he adores his older brother and followed his footsteps to college. Gladys shares her husband’s forcefulness, although she has better social skills. Her grace and charm draw people to her, and Ossian adores her. Alone in the dining room, Ossian worries about the night. He worries that a handful of policemen won’t be able protect the house from an organized, directed mob. Around six, the arrival of Mack with Murray, Washington, Watson, and Leonard Morse interrupts his ruminations.
Most of the people gathered in the house are cultured, sophisticated people. Ossian and his brother Henry have both worked hard to achieve the American Dream. Nevertheless, entrenched racism and systemic segregation empower white people who refuse to share their power with others. And the insufficient size of the force protecting the house suggests a lack of real concern for the family’s safety on the part of the police, even though their job is ostensibly to protect all citizens regardless of race.
Shortly before 8:00, the crowd starts to throw things at the house. A few police officers stand on the sidewalk, opposite hundreds of white people massing in the streets. The men in the house grab weapons and take up defensive positions. Ossian’s hands shake so badly he can barely load his pistol. He ducks into the bedroom to calm himself, and he is there with Gladys when a rock crashes through the window. Just then, a taxi pulls up in front with Otis and William Davis. While Ossian opens the front door to let them in, the mob screams insults and hurls rocks at the house. Another window shatters, and suddenly a gunshot rings out from upstairs.
The lack of concern on the part of the white police officers—including pointedly ignoring the breaking glass—contrasts sharply with the fear on the part of the house’s Black defenders. This points to the officers’ privilege; their skin color has protected them from the types of violence (including race riots and lynchings) used to exert social control over Black Americans in both the North and South.
Outside, white neighborhood resident Eric Houghberg joins the mob. As the first shots ring out, he approaches Leon Breiner, who is standing on the sidewalk. Almost immediately, a bullet tears through Breiner’s abdomen and grazes Eric’s leg. Eric stumbles away as Breiner collapses to the ground, dead.
Again, the actions of the white mob members and the Black defenders inside the house demonstrate the power differentials that segregation reinforces. The white men feel empowered rather than fearful, and clearly don’t expect to meet violent self-defense.
The sudden gunshots shock Inspector Schuknecht. He knows that the dozen officers on the street will be overrun if the crowd gets out of hand. He pushes his way through the roiling crowd to the porch. When Ossian opens the door, Schuknecht maintains that he hasn’t seen any threat that would justify shooting. He demands that the men hold their fire.
Schuknecht’s refusal to acknowledge any threat suggests his bias towards the interests of the mob, which is made up of white men like himself. And it points towards the essential injustice of a system that fails to uphold the civil and human rights that the U.S. supposedly grants to all citizens.
Outside, as Schuknecht learns about Leon Breiner’s death, the crowd grows more volatile. The fearful flee, and those who remain clearly want an excuse to attack. Schuknecht orders his men to set up a perimeter and to call for reinforcements and a paddy wagon. Amazingly, they hold the crowd back, but a few Black passersby, unluckily caught in the fray, find themselves attacked.
The angry crowd looks for an excuse to carry out vigilante justice of the kind that serves to keep Black people contained and fearful. Denied access to the perpetrators of the shooting, the mob turns its violence on other Black people in the area to assert their racial superiority.
When Schuknecht rings the doorbell again, Gladys answers it. Immediately, policemen flood in, turning on the lights and rounding up the defenders. As the police handcuff Ossian to Davis, Ossian flashes back to a childhood memory of mob violence. Joe Mack knows one of the policemen, a member of the Black Hand Squad committed to ensuring the defenders’ safety. He sends the police wagon around back and brings the handcuffed men out through the dark yard without the crowd noticing. As the police vehicle with the arrested men inside inches out into the street, the crowd slowly parts to let it pass freely.
Ossian feels a close connection between the violence of the mob on Garland Avenue and other acts of vigilante and racial violence designed to punish Black Americans for breaching the color line or for other alleged crimes. The fact that the police protect him and his friends from a potential lynch mob suggests that the defenders may have a hope of true justice, after all.