Ossian Sweet arrives in Detroit a newly minted doctor in the late summer of 1925, with little more than $200 in his pocket. In the 10 years since he first came to the city for summer work, the city’s economy has rapidly expanded and its population has boomed. Although initially, the founders of industry, like Henry Ford, thought they could create a city as mechanical and tidy as their factories, early efforts to encourage clean living, a culturally American population, and a Protestant work ethic have been overrun by expansion. Drugs, alcohol, sex work, and other vices are rife. As industrial leaders lose faith in their ability to forge society according to their ideals, racism, xenophobia, and antisemitic sentiment increase. Henry Ford spreads virulently antisemitic conspiracy theories. And violence simmers constantly just below the surface.
American industrial progress, represented by the automobile factories, has brought economic prosperity and opportunity to many people by 1925. But not everyone benefits equally, and city leaders quickly set themselves up as the gatekeepers of social and political power. When men like Henry Ford lose their ability to dictate social morals among their workers due demographic shifts, this loss of control generates a sense of embattlement, a siege mentality. Nativists rally working-class white people to defend racial purity by generating fear and hatred, co-opting people’s natural tendencies towards self-defense for the purposes of increasing segregation.
Ossian rents a room in Black Bottom, the neighborhood where most of Detroit’s Black population lives. When he came to the city a decade earlier, it mostly housed people considered less desirable by native-born white residents (immigrants from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean). But by the early 20s, the demographics have shifted. Black people from the South, traveling north during the Great War, have inundated Black Bottom and changed its character. Predictably, an increasing Black population means deteriorating race relations and increasing segregation and violence. Factories start segregating bathrooms, while white laborers terrorize and sabotage their Black colleagues. Black women must take low paying, exhausting domestic jobs.
As a professional, Ossian returns to a city more segregated and divided than he remembers. Increasing racial diversity drives prejudice and segregation, rather than integration. White residents, feeling threatened by the influx of new Detroiters from the South draw increasingly strong color lines to protect their race from any loss of privilege or power, forcing Black people to take the hardest and most degrading jobs. And because fear animates ideas of racial purity, white people rally to defend their race from perceived invaders with acts of sabotage and violence.
Some Black immigrants to Detroit come to Black Bottom knowing that it’s where they will find community and opportunity. And many of the poorest European immigrants still live there, too. But increasingly, redlining practices confine Black residents to this area of the city. Real estate agents often refuse to show Black families houses in white neighborhoods. And the few Black families that try to encroach into these enclaves often face violence from their neighbors. For example, in 1917, a greedy landlord started renting apartments in an all-white neighborhood to Black families since he could charge them more. A white crowd threatened the new residents and they appealed to some passing policemen for protection. The officers instead stood by while the crowd ransacked the home.
Both policy and social forces contribute to building Detroit’s color line. On the one hand, many new Black residents of the city often chose to live near other Black people, since numbers confer a degree of safety. But on the other hand, white, native-born Detroiters increasingly fence in Black Detroiters through official redlining policies, reinforced by occasional acts of violence. White mobs that cast out Black families believe themselves to be acting in self-defense, protecting the purity of their race by keeping others far out of sight and contact. And when police allow white residents to terrorize Black ones, they show how empty theoretical civil rights are in the face of prejudice and violence.
Black Bottom is an older neighborhood that struggles under the strain of thousands of newcomers. Near the river, flophouses and rat-infested boarding houses provide scant shelter for the poorest residents, while better-off residents live in tiny, cramped, dilapidated buildings. Deprived of options, people pay exorbitant rents for rundown buildings that landlords fail to maintain. Few have amenities like electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. The most destitute pay a fee to sleep on tables in the pool halls. In addition, Detroit policemen frequently subject residents to indignities like random searches and arrests. The preventable diseases linked to poverty and lack of sanitation run rampant through the population: Black residents die of pneumonia at twice the rate and of tuberculosis at three times the rate of white Detroiters. Most can’t afford—or even access—doctors of the city’s predominantly white hospitals.
In this book, houses represent the American Dream as a signal of success. But because there are complex, often unspoken social rules about who can live in which neighborhood, they also mark the segregation and division in society. The difference between houses in Black Bottom—rat infested and rundown—and the rest of the city metaphorically explains the bleak limits that prejudice and segregation place on the city’s Black residents. Every reality of living in Black Bottom, from the preventable diseases to police brutality to punishing rents, confirms the second-class status of Black residents in the city of Detroit and, by extension, in American society in the 1920s.
Ossian establishes his medical practice in Black Bottom at the back of the centrally-located Palace Drug store just a few blocks from his rooms. His first patients, Lucius and Elizabeth Riley, come to him fearing that Elizabeth’s stiff jaw signifies a potentially deadly tetanus infection. Fortunately, it’s just dislocated. Ossian resets it for the modest fee of $5. And the Rileys’ word-of-mouth recommendation encourages new patients to try Ossian’s tiny practice. Most can’t afford to pay much, but Ossian works hard and carefully squirrels away his cash.
Despite the impediments of systemic segregation and the prejudice faced by Black Southern migrants like himself, Ossian doggedly pursues his American Dream, and his hard work appears to be paying off in the way the American Dream mythology says it should. Thanks to previous chapters, however, readers are already aware that what seems like Ossian’s good fortune won’t last.
Ossian also begins to network in the Black Bottom community, joining fraternal organizations like the Elks and the Masons, and starting to attend Ebenezer AME Church. His connections earn him the role of medical examiner for an insurance company, vastly expanding his practice. And he makes a few friends, including lawyer and fellow Howard alum Julian Perry and Dr. Edward Carter, a colleague and fellow Elk and Mason. Carter has the life Ossian wants in the upper reaches of Black society, comprised of mostly Northern-born, well-educated ministers, lawyers, and doctors. Most work in Black Bottom, but few of the elite live there, commuting from houses in predominantly white neighborhoods.
The location of a person’s house broadcasts not just their success (according to the idea of the American Dream), but it also shows who can pass through the color line between the Black and white worlds and meet with tolerance, if not acceptance. The idea of the talented tenth posits that people who can make this transition will lead American society towards racial integration, and Ossian wants to participate in leading that charge. He also wants to show Black and white Detroiters that his hard work has paid off.
Ossian and Carter both work at Dunbar Memorial, a tiny, threadbare hospital founded by the city’s Black doctors in 1918. It represents a proud achievement—a place where Black residents can receive care with dignity—although its resources are severely limited. But it’s a place where Ossian can rub elbows with the city’s established, elite Black doctors.
Dunbar Memorial, like many of the services available in Black Bottom and other segregated communities, shows how harmful prejudice and segregation can be to the groups being discriminated against. And it shows how capably Ossian rises in the ranks of his segregated community.
In the early 1920s, the civil rights movement gains momentum. However, it’s increasingly divided between competing impulses for integration (spearheaded by W. E. B. Du Bois) and Black nationalism. More and more activists preach the value of armed resistance. While Black nationalist ideas draw some Black Bottom residents, most of the Black talented tenth, including Ossian and his medical colleagues, remain staunch integrationists. Their efforts to improve the lot of the city’s Black residents often take on a tone of condescension, lecturing poorer residents about the need to behave with decorum and embrace hygiene. At the same time, the local NAACP branch engages in litigation fighting segregationist policies. And they step in to provide legal aid for a Black man who murdered his abusive landlord. They protect him from lynching and help him to earn a judgment of justifiable homicide.
Prejudice and segregation follow the influx of Black Southerners heading north during the Great Migration, beginning to suggest that grand hopes for integration based on the excellence of a few men and women are naive. Some, like Ossian and his colleagues, double down on their belief that their personal efforts will allow them to cross the color line and bring the rest of Black Detroit in with them. In doing so, they align themselves—consciously and subconsciously—with the exclusionary and prejudicial attitudes of white nativists. Others begin to respond to this dawning realization with more overt calls for civil rights. And the NAACP’s efforts to provide legal protection for Black people caught up in housing disputes foreshadows the violent summer of 1925 in Detroit and the Sweet case.
But when the national organization poaches the Detroit NAACP branch’s charismatic leader, the local branch disintegrates. By the time Ossian arrives, despite solidifying power in the white supremacist movement, local civil rights campaigns have become sporadic. Ossian resents growing discrimination, but he joins the fight against it reluctantly. He participates in a small, safe protest, joining nine of his Black colleagues in very visibly attending an event in honor of a notoriously racist baseball star. Although this action makes Ossian feel powerful, in the context of the city’s increasing segregation, it does little to improve the lives of Black Detroiters or Black Americans. Race riots destroy the Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. In 1922, 51 Black men are lynched. And in 1923, race riots destroy Rosewood, Florida.
Ossian approaches the discrimination and segregation in Detroit as a personal issue. He seems to believe that if he focuses on making himself an exemplar of the Black race—a member of the talented tenth—he will find acceptance in the white community. His single act of protest isn’t very meaningful for anyone other than himself. All the while, the situation in the city and the country more broadly continues to escalate. This shows both how invested white Americans are becoming in protecting their racial purity and privilege and how easily the theoretical progress of the Reconstruction Era and the granting of civil rights to Black Americans can be undermined in practice.
Against this backdrop of increasing violence, Ossian meets Gladys at a dance in 1922. Gladys was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her single mother luckily married a young Black musician, who took his family to Detroit and then built a successful career. The family could afford to live in a white neighborhood, allowing Gladys to attend white schools. To Ossian, the graceful, cultured, and educated Gladys represents the perfect wife. They marry in December 1922 and move in with Gladys’ parents—Black Bottom is no place for a lady like Gladys to live.
Like Ossian, Gladys’s life exemplifies the ideals of the talented tenth and the American Dream. Her stepfather’s efforts earn a comfortable life and advantages for his family. And access to nice housing, good schools, and a comprehensive education turns Gladys into a model American woman. The only thing that holds her apart from the middle-class white people in the city is her skin color.
Following his marriage, Ossian plans to spend a year in Europe studying the latest medical advances. Not only will this polish his medical credentials, but it adds a layer of elite sophistication to his growing self-presentation. Moreover, the relative lack of overt racism in Europe promises a welcome respite from the exhaustion of survival in America. Through the spring and summer of 1923, he works out the trip’s logistics, despite Gladys’ pregnancy. She delivers a premature baby boy in July who dies three days later. Thus, the European trip provides a distraction from the couples’ personal grief in addition to a break from Jim Crow-style racism. Their ship cabin for the European voyage sits between two white couples’ cabins.
The Sweets’ trip to Europe demonstrates how American culture specifically fosters and perpetuates the prejudice, segregation, and violence they experience. In the rest of the world—and even just on the steamer ship that carries them across the Atlantic—others recognize and respect their dignity and worth as human beings. This offers readers a pointed reminder that legal and social factors worked together to generate the extremely overt and violent forms of racism common in 1920s America.
The Sweets stop in Vienna first, and Ossian attends lectures by Baron von Eiselberg, the father of neurosurgery. Studying at the Eiselberg Institute itself would have given him better access to cutting-edge medical research, but just attending such a famous man’s lectures provides Ossian with knowledge far beyond the medicine practiced in the resource-starved Dunbar Hospital. In Vienna, Gladys discovers that she is pregnant again. Then the couple moves to Paris, where Ossian listens to Marie Curie, the mother of radiology. In Europe, the Sweets relish the lack of racial discrimination, much like the growing community of Black expatriate artists, musicians, and writers converging on Paris.
Ossian’s European trip also shows how much work it requires to earn a spot in the talented tenth. Burnishing his credentials in Europe won’t impress his working-class patients; instead, it signals to his colleagues (and the city’s white medical establishment) that Ossian deserves respect. And as they spend more time in Europe, the Sweets increasingly glimpse the promise of a life in which they are treated as the equal members of society they only are in theory in America.
But Jim Crow follows the Sweets abroad, too. Although Ossian makes a sizeable donation to the American Hospital in Paris, it refuses to allow Gladys to deliver there, saying that she would make white patients uncomfortable. Fortunately, baby Iva arrives without incident in May, shortly before the family’s return home to Detroit.
In fact, the only notable experience of segregation the Sweets have in Europe is at the American hospital. American society’s commitment to segregation runs so deep that its white institutions refuse to relinquish their superior privilege even while abroad.