Throughout the summer of 1925, rumors flow around Garland Avenue that a Black family has bought the corner house. The threat seems more imminent when posters advertising the Waterworks Park Improvement Society go up, asking people interested in “self-defense” to band together. Chairman Harold McGlynn hosts 700 people for the Society’s first public meeting in the schoolyard across from the bungalow. The main speaker, who represents the Tireman Avenue Association neighborhood association, riles up the crowds’ segregationist sentiment.
Organizations like the Waterworks Improvement Association provide one clear example of the way that legal policies work hand in hand with social customs to enforce segregation. The group starts out of fear and anger: it’s a group of neighbors determined to keep any and all Black families from moving in. And the fact that they understand their actions as self-defense points towards the way many white people in the pre-Civil Rights Era felt that any small step towards integration threatened their privilege.
The family in question is the Sweets. After their return from Europe in the summer of 1924, they moved back in with Gladys’ parents while they saved money for the down payment on a house. Newly elevated by his European studies, Ossian spent much of the year rebuilding his practice. His brother Otis moved to Detroit and established a dental practice, while the much younger Henry completed his studies at Wilberforce University in nearby Ohio. Otis, who is less driven than his brother, contentedly lives a middle-class life. Like his oldest brother, Henry has grand plans for his professional life. But he involves himself in racial activism to a much greater degree.
A determined member of the talented tenth, Ossian plans to assert his right to integrate into white society. He returns from Europe intent on the next steps towards building his American Dream. His European studies elevate his professional status and rebuilding his practice starts to refill his bank account. In contrast, brother Otis’s contented, simpler life seems to acknowledge the limits prejudice and segregation place on his upward mobility, while Henry’s political interests show the increasing necessity of direct political demands for civil rights rather than trusting that integration will just happen on its own.
While Ossian and Gladys put away money, enormous shifts occur in the politics of Detroit race relations. Nativist politicians with a tough-on-crime stance reshaped the city’s criminal court in the late teens and 20s. This crackdown on petty crimes inspired political revolt by the lower classes. In the 1923 election, they support progressive, Irish-American Frank Murphy’s campaign for judge to rebalance the court. A fear and smear campaign, launched in the papers by business and political elites, fails and the support of east-side wards, including Black Bottom, carry Murphy to an easy victory. In response, when the city’s mayor announces his early retirement in 1924, necessitating a special election, the Ku Klux Klan jumps into the political fray. John Smith, a Polish-American Catholic and a former soldier with a fourth-grade education, jumps into the ring, hoping to capitalize on the support of the same coalition that propelled Murphy to victory.
The political situation in Detroit during the early 1920s shows how the personal and the political are entwined. Although much of the prejudice and segregation experienced by people like the Sweets happens in small, individual actions, these actions dovetail with larger currents in the city’s political and social scene. The ascension of working-class sons of immigrants like Murphy and Smith—based on the support of both Black and working-class white Detroiters—threatens the grip native-born, wealthy white elites have on power. Thus, to protect themselves, they turn to organizations like the Klan to help them try to divide the support of the lower classes along racial lines.
The Ku Klux Klan pick an unknown lawyer as their candidate to challenge John Smith. When they fail to get their candidate on the ballot, they must resort to a write-in campaign, which they publicize with massive demonstrations and rallies meant to intimidate voters. Smith refuses to be intimidated, and both white progressives like pastor Reinhold Niebuhr and Detroit’s talented tenth close ranks behind him. But, while 99% of Black Bottom voters choose Smith, enough white voters write in the Klan’s candidate to assure him victory—except that Smith’s supporters on the election committee disqualified hundreds of ballots on technicalities. Smith claims victory, at least until the next general election, which is scheduled for the following year. Intent on keeping racial tensions running high ahead of the election, the Klan focuses on fostering rage over Black encroachment into all-white neighborhoods.
The Klan’s candidate illustrates their confidence in the power of racial prejudice and nativist fears to shape public policy by helping them win the election. Expecting the majority of white voters to support them, they don’t pick a particularly qualified or recognizable candidate. And their confidence isn’t misplaced: despite the support of the Black community and working-class white progressives, their candidate received more votes. And while Smith’s victory could signal the start of a new era in Detroit civil rights, it doesn’t. The Klan doubles down on a campaign of convincing working-class white people that potential Black neighbors are a bigger threat to their prosperity than the political elites.
Although Gladys claims no preference for a white neighborhood, police violence and poor living standards put Black Bottom—the only Black neighborhood—out of the question. But moving into a white neighborhood presents steep challenges. Most of Ossian’s colleagues who live outside of Black Bottom established themselves years before, when the color lines in real estate were more porous. Now, land developers write racially exclusionary covenants into the deeds for newly built houses. And real estate agents rarely show Black families houses in white neighborhoods, since their presence automatically drags down property values. Some hire white real estate agents to buy homes for them, but Ossian’s pride won’t allow that.
The policies and practices that largely confine Black residents like the Sweets to Black Bottom are called “redlining,” and they show how legal and social practices work together to reinforce segregation. The covenants—discriminatory agreements included in the deeds of homes—are legally binding on homebuyers and owners. Agents’ reluctance to show homes in white neighborhoods to Black buyers suggests that segregation is getting worse, not better. The fact that it’s harder for Ossian to buy in a white neighborhood than it was for many of his older colleagues also supports this idea: the years tick by but race relations in Detroit deteriorate rather than improve.
But one day, Lucius Riley, husband of Ossian’s first Detroit patient, lets the doctor know about a fine, recently built house about to go on sale on Garland Avenue. Garland is hardly a middle- or professional-class neighborhood. Other, better neighborhoods have small Black enclaves. But Garland lies conveniently close to Ossian’s practice in Black Bottom, and the house sits on busy Charlevoix Avenue, with its streetcar line. The sellers, Ed and Marie Smith, might feel sympathy for the Sweets—Ed is a Black man who passes for white—but they also know they can charge the Black family above market value for the house. To sweeten the deal, the Smiths offer to finance the purchase themselves so the Sweets can avoid the challenge of finding a mortgage lender. This benefits the Smiths, too, allowing them to charge an outrageous 18% interest on the loan.
Without comprehensive civil rights in practice as well as in legal theory, members of disadvantaged and devalued groups like the Sweets face an uneven playing field. Aligning themselves with prejudicial social and legal systems, the Smiths take advantage of the Sweets to improve their outcome in the sale. Without betraying any sympathy for the Sweets, they defend their own interests by charging much more than market value for their house. Still, in a system that aids and abets an increasingly segregated society in Detroit, even this subpar deal offers Ossian his best chance at forcing American society to acknowledge (if not appreciate) his presence and achievements as a Black man.
As soon as the Sweets visit the house—before they even buy it—rumors start swirling on Garland Avenue. Worry based on racist fearmongering that Black men rape white women and Black people corrupt white morals combines with wounded pride that a Black family could so easily buy their way into a neighborhood where working-class families struggle to pay the bills. But the gravest concerns are economic. Changes in the economy, including Detroit’s overheated housing market and expanded credit opportunities, mean that most families in the neighborhood don’t own their houses outright. Often, they hold multiple mortgages which they must constantly refinance and struggle to pay down on working-class wages. The color line giving way sets off a domino effect: property values drop, refinancing opportunities thus dwindle, and people begin to default.
The white residents of Garland Avenue fear Black neighbors because of the narratives constructed about Black criminality and white racial purity. But it’s important to remember that society created the associations between Blackness and criminality, in part by confining both Black residents and socially undesirable (if popular) businesses like speakeasies, brothels, and casinos to the same areas of town through redlining. Thus, to many, the best way to protect one’s home value is to make sure it’s in an all-white (and so supposedly safe and moral) neighborhood. The residents are vulnerable to these fears because, as working-class laborers, they have an insecure grip on home ownership and by extension, on the American Dream.
Garland Avenue’s residents’ concerns lack a focus, though, until a series of clashes on the west side during the spring and summer of 1925. First, two Black families, recently arrived from Georgia, rent a flat just one block beyond the traditional border of one Black neighborhood. When a white mob tries to storm the house, one of the Black women, Fleta Mathies, shoots a pistol out the window. This draws police attention, and although no one is hurt, they charge Fleta with reckless use of a firearm. At the police station, an irate neighbor tells her that her “people have got more privileges than you’re entitled to.” She remains defiant as Black lawyer Cecil Rowlette gets her case dismissed.
The color line is an imaginary boundary, marked not by physical structures but by social agreement; the location of Fleta Mathies’ home shows how porous the line is in practice. But, since working-class white people feel that their race give them power, they resent any encroachment by Black residents like Mathies. The neighbor’s angry outburst demonstrates this resentment and shows how civil rights weren’t necessarily considered universal rights in early 20th-century Detroit, or America. Importantly, the Detroit courts recognize Mathies’ right to defend herself and her home from danger—in this case, the justice system works fairly.
Next, Dr. Alexander Turner, an established Black physician who has long lived in an all-white neighborhood on the east side, decides to move his family to a house a few blocks north of Tireman Avenue. Within a few hours of moving in, a mob has gathered on his doorstep. Despite a police presence at the scene, men impersonating the police convince Turner to open the door. The mob rushes inside and begins to terrorize the family. When the mob’s ringleaders, members of the Tireman Avenue Improvement Association, demand that Turner sign his deed over to them, he agrees to do so at his office. But the mob attacks again when he enters his car. Injured, Turner rushes to his lawyer’s office and relinquishes his new home.
The white neighborhood has long tolerated Dr. Turner and his family, even if they haven’t appreciated having a Black family in their midst. But his attempt to move unleashes a firestorm of racialized violence, as residents of the new neighborhood mobilize to protect the privilege of living in an all-white neighborhood and its associated property values. A terrified Dr. Turner gives in to the mob and relinquishes his home, setting two precedents that will be important later to the Sweets. First, it shows white homeowners that violence can scare Black residents away. Second, in comparison with Mathies’ case, it seems to confirm that Black families in white neighborhoods need to be prepared to protect themselves with weapons.
Two weeks later, the Tireman Avenue Improvement Association attacks Vollington Bristol, an old friend of Ossian’s. Bristol owns a house in a white neighborhood, which he rents to white tenants. But, fed up with issues like unpaid bills and property damage, he decides to accept Black tenants instead. Each time a new Black family moves in, the neighbors terrorize them until they leave. When the ringleaders demand he stops renting to Black people, he elects to move in himself. Bristol requests police protection on the day of his move, and the white mob initially asks the police to stand aside momentarily to allow them to “drive the coloreds away.” Five police officers bravely hold off the crowd until reinforcements arrive, at which point they arrest 19 men and seize 35 guns and several knives from the crowd.
As with the Mathies case, Bristol’s brush with mob violence demonstrates the emotional power—but also the fictitious nature—of the color line. The white homeowners don’t object to Bristol owning the home. But the visible presence of Black people across the color line drives them to violence. Bristol rises to their attention when his actions claim that he deserves the same rights as any other landlord, to have tenants that pay the rent and don’t destroy his property. But his white tenants can behave with impunity thanks to social prejudice that teaches them that Bristol, as a Black man, is inferior.
Two weeks later and a few blocks away, John Fletcher moves his Black family into a new house. As they sit down to dinner, a mob gathers in the street. Fletcher calls the police who, to his amazement, chat amicably with the growing crowd. As the sun sets, onlookers begin to pelt the house with chunks of coal and stones while chanting “Lynch him! Lynch him!” Panicked and fed up, Fletcher picks up a rifle and opens fire through an upstairs window, wounding a person in the crowd. The crowd instantly disperses while police book Fletcher for the shooting. The next day, he makes bail and moves his family out of their new house.
As with Dr. Turner’s experience, John Fletcher’s clearly shows the racially inequal application of the legal and justice systems in 1920’s Detroit—the police show more sympathy towards the mob than the family they’re supposed to be protecting. The neighbors’ calls for lynching remind Fletcher—and readers—of the ongoing threats of violence that Black Americans face. They also show the slow progress towards racial equity and civil rights, even in the North. Like Dr. Turner (and unlike Ossian Sweet), Fletcher capitulates to the threats of violence instead of standing his ground.
Turner, Fletcher, Mathies, and their families all flee. Bristol remains, but he faces daily death threats. The Tireman Avenue Association feels proud of its work preserving property values, keeping Black families off white turf, and shoring up the color line.
The pride white people feel when they chase Black families from their homes shows the extent to which the prejudice and segregation espoused by the most extreme white supremacist groups (like the Ku Klux Klan) had become common in the North in the 1920s.
The violence scares Gladys and Ossian. But Ossian feels that backing down will mean admitting his failure to live up to the principles of racial pride he learned through his education. A new generation of leaders have revitalized the local NAACP chapter, including Dr. Edward Carter and others of Ossian’s colleagues. On the night of the attack on Turner’s house, Carter suggests to Ossian and other friends that they join its defense, although they ultimately decide to stay away. Instead, Carter begins to censure Turner for failing to stand up for himself.
Dr. Carter has a complicated relationship to Ossian and the events on Garland Avenue. Ossian looks up to his elder mentor with a great deal of respect. And Carter certainly has strong opinions about the state of housing segregation in Detroit. But he refuses to put himself on the line, failing to follow through on his idea to help Dr. Turner defend his home just as he will later fail to show up to help Ossian defend his. And while this might point towards a personal lack of courage, it also offers a stark reminder of the real violence and terror that organizations like the Ku Klux Klan or even white neighborhood mobs could wield to deprive Black Americans of their civil rights.
The Ku Klux Klan poses a very real threat: just days after the attack on John Fletcher, they host a rally attended by 10,000 people. But mayor John Smith refuses their attempts at intimidation. The Klan rally provokes a statement from the mayor’s office denouncing the violence of race riots and reminding the police they must enforce the law, which “recognizes no distinction in color or race.” But Smith also urges Black leaders to back down and accept their place in society for the sake of peace. While Ossian, Turner, and other members of Detroit’s talented tenth gather to discuss the attacks, Marie Smith calls to tell Ossian that the Garland Avenue neighbors are beginning to organize for violence. But Ossian feels determined to be the man Turner failed to be, to claim and protect his own house.
The increasing small-scale neighborhood violence mirrors the Klan’s ascendancy on a wave of racialized resentment against recent Black immigrants to Detroit (and the North generally). And while the mayor acknowledges that Black residents have the same civil rights as white residents in theory, he also tries to place the responsibility to quell the violence directed against them on Black Detroiters themselves. In practice, they’re expected to maintain the color line by conforming to the role of second-class citizens.
The Waterworks Park Improvement Association—named for a park at the foot of Garland Avenue—has its first meeting in the garage of Harry Monet, a tire-factory laborer. They name Harold McGlynn, an auto plant inspector, as chairman, although the group likely benefits from the leadership of James Conley, a local real estate agent who stands to lose his livelihood as well as the value of his home if a Black family moves to the neighborhood. Under his guidance, the Association begins to encourage members to add restrictive covenants to their deeds. And the Association holds its first rally—with a Tireman Association member as the featured speaker—at the local elementary school in mid-July.
Neighborhood associations, like the ones around Tireman and Garland Avenues, use two primary means to protect their neighborhoods against perceived “invasions” by Black residents: the threats of violence already shown by the Mathies, Turner, Bristol, and Fletcher incidents, and restrictive covenants. These are lines added to a person’s property deed that specify how the property can—and can’t—be used in perpetuity. The neighborhood associations encourage people to add covenants to their deeds specifying that the property must be owned by white people.
Undercover officers attend the rally and report on it to Inspector Norton Schuknecht, a life-long east-sider. Garland Avenue lies in his precinct, and he has ties to the community through his brother-in-law, Otto Lemhagen. With ties to the native-born Protestant political elite of Detroit, Schuknecht has had a comfortable career on the force. The Sweets’ impending arrival puts him in a tough spot. Professionally, he’s beholden to police force leadership that wants to avoid further embarrassment after police were complicit in attacks on Black property over the summer. But personally, he feels sympathy for Garland Avenue residents, since he has a mortgage and a daughter too. He can imagine their fear.
In telling the Sweets’ story, the book claims that justice cannot exist until all people have equal civil rights in theory and in practice. Schuknecht’s divided loyalties show why. On the one hand, as a police officer, he’s supposed to protect all citizens; on the other hand, he empathizes with the white neighborhood residents, including his own relatives. And by late summer of 1925, it’s become clear that most of the predominantly-white Detroit police force, like Schuknecht, prefers to protect the interests of other white people, pointing to the systemic prejudice that Black Detroiters face.
As the move draws closer, Ossian’s determination to defend himself grows. He likes the way his resolve impresses his peers. He listens to encouragement from the NAACP, which asserts that if race riots are the price to pay for Black people asserting the “rights of men,” so be it. He gathers his compatriots: Gladys, Otis, Henry and his friend John Latting, Julian Perry, Dr. Carter, William Davis, Joe Mack and Norris Murray. Gladys stockpiles food and Ossian collects weapons. And, at Bristol’s urging, Ossian contacts the police to ask for protection, although he goes above Schuknecht’s head and speaks directly with Robert McPherson, head of the Black Hand Squad that polices the Italian mob and Black community.
Ossian’s undergraduate and medical school careers may have been undistinguished, but through asserting his civil right to own whatever house he can afford to buy in Detroit, he has found a way to claim a leadership role in his community. Gladys and Ossian prepare to defend their property and their human dignity, even as their preparations show their awareness of how dangerous this choice may be. The police—all too likely to side with a white mob instead of protect a Black family—are an afterthought, illustrating how injustice and racism shows Black people, like Ossian, that they cannot trust their local government to support them.
By the time the Sweets move in in early September, the Ku Klux Klan has gotten its man on the ballot for the mayoral election in the fall; exuberant Klan leaders plan to erect KKK signs on their downtown headquarters when they win. On Garland Avenue, despite an early flurry of activity, the Waterworks Association has failed to sustain the neighbor’s tensions over the long, hot summer months. Mutual distrust and self-interest mean that only a handful agree to add restrictive covenants to their deeds, and interest in the Association’s work fades.
The Klan’s success in getting their candidate on the ballot makes them increasingly visible, and their heightened visibility emboldens nativist sentiment and increases the possibility of violence. On Garland Avenue, however, self-interest impedes the Neighborhood Improvement Association’s drive to keep the Sweets out with restrictive covenants. This, too, increases the risk of violence.
Inspector Schuknecht finds out about the Sweets’ move-in date from Inspector McPherson less than 24 hours in advance. McPherson is a decorated police office, but Schuknecht finds him unreliable. With little forewarning, Schuknecht scrambles to arrange around-the-clock protection for the house and to muster backups at the precinct house. And tensions rise higher after a fleeing Black man shoots two officers, one fatally, on the night before the move. September 8th passes without incident. But the following night, as the crowd grows restive and roils with rumors, a gang of teenagers begins throwing rocks and bricks at the house. Just after a taxicab lets out two Black men on the sidewalk in front of the house, shots ring out from an upstairs window.
The episode between Schuknecht and McPherson represents two men jockeying for dominance on the police force. But this minor interpersonal spat compromises Schuknecht’s ability—if not his intent—to protect the Sweets. Without full civil rights in practice, even small hiccups disproportionately expose the Sweets to danger. Growing racial tensions set the stage for the move, which miraculously passes without incident, at least at first. But the white residents want to protect their turf. And the Sweets and their friends are just as determined to protect themselves, their right to live where they please, and the house, by any means necessary.