Tracing the story of Ossian Sweet’s past, the narrative follows him to Xenia, Ohio, where he arrives by train in September of 1909. In the early years of the 20th century, many Black Southerners like Ossian go north hoping for better treatment, better jobs, or the promise of education. Xenia boasts Wilberforce University, the nation’s first Black college.
Ossian goes north seeking educational opportunities that don’t exist in the Jim Crow South, just as everyone else participating in the Great Migration hopes to find less racism and segregation and more safety and opportunity in the North.
Wilberforce is not the best Black college: many educated Black elites, including W. E. B. Du Bois,—who taught there for a year—consider it a backwater. But it offers a four-year preparatory curriculum for students who, like Ossian, didn’t attend high school. The AME owns and operates the school, and a scholarship promises Ossian a free education.
Wilberforce enshrines the hope of Reconstruction-era initiatives undertaken by the AME Church and white progressives to expand educational access for newly freed Black citizens and their descendants. But its declining reputation shows how much Ossian still must overcome to achieve the status and success his family wants.
The school has a long history. In the mid-1850s, Ohio abolitionists bought the grounds of a former resort patronized by the wives and daughters of Southern planters. They established Wilberforce, the first college for free Black students. It was controlled by white people until the AME purchased it in 1863. By the time Ossian arrives, segregation and chronic underfunding mean that the buildings are slowly crumbling, the lab equipment is outdated, and the scholarship fund is empty. To pay for school, Ossian works on campus, performing the kind of manual labor from which his education was supposed to free him.
Wilberforce’s history also shows the degree to which segregation perpetuates itself in American culture, even among abolitionists—white people who worked to end slavery. Even they fail to imagine integrated colleges, instead establishing separate institutions specifically for Black people. This leaves the college vulnerable to the waning interest of its white founders and to consequently dwindling financial support.
Wilberforce University, like other Black colleges and universities, was founded on ideas promulgated by men like W. E. B. Du Bois, who believed that the race will only advance on the efforts of “exceptional men and women,” a “talented tenth” capable of great things. A rigorous education will mold these people into racial standard bearers. Early in Reconstruction, Northern abolitionists embraced these ideas, but their interest faded in the economic, political, and social upheaval that followed the Civil War. By the early decades of the 20th century, many Northern white people seem to tacitly agree with their Southern peers that Black people were inferior. As a result, trade schools were replacing Black colleges. Even Wilberforce had to institute “industrial arts” programs to attract state financing.
The history of Wilberforce and of Du Bois’s idea of the “talented tenth” illustrate how deeply segregated thinking pervades American society, even during the hopeful Reconstruction Era. The idea of the tenth acknowledges the fear that white society will only accept the most exceptionally talented Black people. And an impulse to keep Black students segregated in their own colleges tempers abolitionists’ push to advance civil rights through education. The readiness with which state financing became associated with preparing Black students for trade and labor jobs (rather than professional careers) shows the deeply ingrained nature of American racism and segregationist tendencies.
But the university’s president, William Sanders Scarborough, refused to compromise the talented tenth ideal when it came to the college’s academic students. Scarborough was born into slavery in 1850. But determined to join professional society, after Emancipation he studied at Atlanta University and Oberlin College, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classics.
Scarborough (who was Black) majors in Classics, the study of the ancient Greek and Latin languages and their literatures. Thus, this ideal figure of the talented tenth makes his mark in the world by becoming an expert in the very foundations of white Western civilization. This highlights the idea that in order for a Black person to be accepted into white society at this time, they must fully embrace white culture.
Ossian thus receives a rigorous education in the preparatory program, with classes in literature, history, philosophy, math, science, Latin, French, music, and drawing. The college program, which he begins in 1913 with his eye on a science degree, combines academic rigor with moral training. The college strictly separates men and women, forbids swearing, and prohibits alcohol and tobacco. And Ossian participates in the military cadet corps.
Ossian’s education is based in the liberal arts tradition and emphasizes creating well-rounded students, not just cranking out men and women fit for trade jobs and manual labor. In this way, Wilberforce’s curriculum claims that its Black students have the same human dignity, potential, and rights as anyone else. Its moral training falls in line with AME ideology, but also reinforces the idea that the Black men and women leading the drive for integration must meet a nearly impossible standard of excellence.
Scarborough supplements the school’s efforts to shape its students with “racial politics.” In 1905, Scarborough becomes a charter member of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Niagara Movement for racial equity. At this time, integrationists face steep challenges. Scientists and philosophers are increasingly promoting theories of racial purity that directly claim that white people are superior to so-called “colored” people (including Black people, Native American people, and members of other marginalized immigrant groups). These theories are becoming popular among working-class white people, too. The white women of Xenia shun Scarborough’s white wife because they are horrified by her interracial marriage.
By the turn of the 20th century, many of the efforts of the Reconstruction Era have been undermined by resurgent segregation and racism not just in the Jim Crow South but throughout the nation. Ideologues play on people’s fear of Black people to promote theories of racial purity, and racial purity requires strict segregation of non-white people to protect the supposed purity of the white race. Once again, social and scientific ideas both support and provoke legal statutes to segregate society.
Race riots in the North punctuate Ossian’s years at Wilberforce. They break out in Springfield, Ohio (close to Wilberforce) in March 1904 and February 1906. A particularly violent 1908 race riot in Springfield, Illinois galvanizes white support for Black political action. In 1909, shortly before Ossian arrives at Wilberforce, Scarborough, W. E. B. Du Bois, and other prominent Black and white activists form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In race riots, white mobs believed that they were protecting members of their race from the dangers supposedly posed by Black people in their communities. Like lynchings, riots often responded to perceived crimes allegedly committed by a Black person, and by negative example they dramatically show how true justice depends on equality in both name and practice of the law.
It this atmosphere of racial tensions and expectations, Ossian studies. Perched precariously between the world of the college students and the second-class industrial arts students by virtue of his campus job, he has a relatively undistinguished undergraduate career. Only one event—nearly being expelled for being caught off campus with two drunk compatriots—stands out. Between academic years, Ossian works service jobs in Detroit. There, he makes friends who tell him that Detroit respects ambition, making it a place where a Black man’s efforts can be rewarded.
Ossian’s version of the American Dream story involves a lot of hard work and struggle. His campus job both illustrates the precarious nature of his path toward professional life and seems to offer an ongoing reminder of what he’s trying to rise above. The fact the college’s chronic underfunding costs Ossian his scholarship—and that he remains an average and undistinguished student, due in part to having to work—points toward the systemic disadvantages he faces as a Black man trying to achieve the American Dream.
But for Ossian, college mostly means financial struggle. This strengthens his resolve to become a doctor and “amass a substantial fortune.” But medicine is a very competitive field when he graduates. Raised standards and regulations have closed all but two Black medical schools, and these accept just a handful of students yearly. Ossian needs more than a second-rate college degree to ensure his admittance. But then the United States joins the Great War (later called World War I). Poor eyesight prevents Ossian from serving, and the talent drain of the war renders medical schools much less competitive. Howard medical school admits Ossian.
Again, the situation when Ossian graduates shows the pervasive effects of segregation and prejudice in limiting opportunities for Black Americans: Black would-be doctors can only attend one of two Black medical colleges. The small number of Black doctors carries huge implications for Black patients, who are systematically denied access to medical care. When WWI begins, a stroke of luck augments Ossian’s efforts to achieve the American Dream, which for him has boiled down to accruing the wealth and status normally denied to Black men like himself.
The Great War changes America. Patriotic fervor revitalizes racism and nativist sentiments. Jim Crow segregation seeps into Washington D.C. under President Wilson. For example, the War Department organizes Black soldiers into a single, white-commanded company to prevent racial mixing in the ranks. Industry—from the great Detroit motor plants to the smallest sweat shops—turns to creating war materials. With European immigration all but cut off by the war and factories drained of workers by the draft, Southern Black men move north in record numbers to fill labor shortages. In response, racist violence increases in the North. A race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois in the summer of 1917 leaves dozens of Black residents dead, hundreds injured, and thousands homeless. The president refuses to condemn the violence, and the NAACP leads a silent protest march down New York’s Fifth Avenue.
The changing demographics of Northern cities during World War I, thanks to the war and the beginning of the Great Migration, demonstrate the pervasive and systemic effects of racism in American culture. More established (and lighter-skinned) European immigrants become increasingly accepted by their white, native-born neighbors as Black Southerners begin to flow into cities from the South. This in turn leads to de facto segregation, even though northern cities remain largely free of the legal segregation common in the Jim Crow South. And the NAACP leans on increasingly visible and political tactics in its efforts to assert civil rights for Black Americans.
Ossian arrives in Washington D.C. in this atmosphere of heightened racial tensions. Howard University is everything Wilberforce is not: the federal government subsidizes the college and its graceful campus borders not only the impoverished Black neighborhood of the capitol but the graceful neighborhoods where the successful Black elite—the talented tenth—live. And its medical school is its crown jewel. The curriculum easily meets the new standards; its Freedman’s Hospital is nearly brand-new. Despite the University’s insistence that medical students focus on their studies exclusively, Ossian still works to cover his tuition and expenses. Perhaps because of this added pressure, his academic career at Howard is good but undistinguished.
The contrast between chronically underfunded Wilberforce and elite Howard shows the damaging effects of systemic segregation and racial prejudice; with colleges segregated and all but the finest Black schools starved of resources, only the most elite Black students have access to the education that can help them achieve the American Dream of stability, success, and wealth. And initially, the university and its modern, well-appointed medical school seem to prove that the talented tenth has the power to break into mainstream white culture.
But even an undistinguished Howard medical student has the kind of status and gravitas that Ossian craves. He begins to dress sharply and adopts a doctor’s professional detachment. Sometimes, he indulges in arrogance, like when he openly criticizes Meharry Medical College, where his brother Otis studies dentistry. Determined to make good on his education, Ossian looks sets wealth and status as his life goals. But he knows that racism will always limit him: his patients will be Black, his wealth and status dependent on their economic and social circumstances.
Although Ossian undoubtedly works hard to support himself and complete his education at both Wilberforce and Howard, his apparent inability to perceive the role of luck in his path gives him a sense of superiority verging on arrogance that will surface again later in his life story. But even with his potential for wealth and success, systemic racism and commonplace, socially-reinforced segregation limit his upward mobility. The higher Ossian rises from his impoverished childhood, the clearer the chasm between himself and the world of the white, native-born American elite becomes.
While Ossian studies medicine at Howard, the war exacerbates political and racial tensions. Fear about the influence of communist ideology leads to a campaign against left-wing activists and feeds narratives of nativist white superiority. A white mob even lynches a Black soldier for wearing his uniform in public in early 1919. Then, in the summer, a race riot breaks out in Washington D.C. The army houses thousands of soldiers on the outskirts of town. After a rumor circulates that a Black man raped a white soldier’s wife, a mob of soldiers descends on Black neighborhoods, terrorizing them for three days and nights.
Fear of outsiders and extreme patriotism fuel white supremacy during World War I as social and political narratives increasingly reinforce segregation in common practice and law. When a white mob lynches a Black soldier, they make a claim about who is—and isn’t—allowed to be a proud American. Protecting the country expands into an idea of protecting the racial purity of the white, native-born elite. And in the case of the D.C. riot, a desire to protect the sexual purity of white women—and by extension the white race—animates the mob of soldiers.
But Black residents near Howard gather weapons and meet the mob’s violence with their own force. Although the president calls the National Guard and a rainstorm quells some of the violence, the NAACP forcefully claims that Black self-defense ended the white violence. Ossian may not participate in the stand, but he doubtlessly knows about it.
The D.C. race riot sees the NAACP making a pivotal claim for the rights of Black people to defend themselves against white violence. The early decades of the 20th century show Black Americans that attempts to ingratiate themselves with the white elites—as the AME Church in Bartow did when Fred Rochelle was lynched—don’t provide safety. Black Americans must exercise the civil rights that white society denies them.
Less than a week later, a similar race riot breaks out in Chicago, and smaller ones follow in Tennessee, Nebraska, and Arkansas through the summer and fall. Although the riots subside in 1920, the nativist sentiment revitalized by the war and the communist scare continues to grow. White supremacist ideas promoted by intellectuals and politicians merge with the direct political actions of groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Congress moves closer to limiting foreign immigration, and racial segregation becomes entrenched in northern cities like Chicago.
In the immediate aftermath of World War I, nativist political changes work together with the racialized terrorism of the Klan and other groups to enforce both legal and de facto social segregation in American society. Protection of racial purity becomes both the rallying cry and the impetus behind efforts to reinforce the color line in all aspects of society. This offers a pointed reminder that progress towards a just and civil society is neither guaranteed nor easy.
Ossian completes his medical education caring for patients at the Freedman’s Hospital, many of whom suffer from the preventable diseases linked to poverty and poor sanitation like malnutrition, gangrene, diphtheria, and typhoid. He graduates in 1921. His Floridian hometown beckons with a life of comfort and security. But not content with comfortable obscurity, he heads to Detroit.
The patient population at Freedman points towards the consequences of systemic segregation, which is still entrenched in American culture decades after the end of the Civil War. Denied access to education, good jobs, and medical care, Ossian’s patients suffer from preventable diseases. This also points to an uncomfortable truth in Ossian’s American Dream, for his success depends, in part, on the misery of other Black people.