Ossian and the other men arrive at the police station as confirmation arrives that, while doctors expect Eric Houghberg to survive, Leon Breiner has died. The architectural beauty of Detroit’s neoclassical police headquarters belies the corruption and malice—especially towards Black citizens—of the police force itself. While Blondy Hayes, the Black Hand lieutenant who ensured the Black men’s safety from the mob as police removed them from the house, treats them with kindness, the men know not to expect sympathy from anyone else. While they wait in the anteroom of the Detective’s Bureau, Ossian and Hewitt Watson call their lawyers, Julian Perry and Charles Mahoney, respectively. Then, in whispers, the company agree on the story they’ll tell police about the night’s events.
The contrast between the beauty of the police headquarters and the corruption of the police force allows the building to stand as a metaphor for the experience of Black Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era: while in theory they have full civil rights, in practice, powerful people and institutions often treat them as systematically disadvantaged, second-class citizens. It’s this reality—as opposed to their theoretical equality—that leads the men to distrust the justice system. And since they can’t trust the system, the men decide to try to cover up their actions.
At 10:45 p.m., two hours after the shooting, Lieutenant Hayes summons Ossian for the first interview with Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Ted Kennedy. Kennedy’s boss, Robert Toms, dispatched him to conduct the interviews to ensure that the police’s often inappropriate use of intimidation and force doesn’t ruin the case. Kennedy wants to catch Ossian in a conspiracy to commit violence, but Ossian weakly maintains that he didn’t know Garland Avenue was an all-white neighborhood and that the nine other men were just normal dinner guests. As Kennedy’s questions become more aggressive, though, cracks appear in Ossian’s story. He steadfastly refuses to admit that he planned or prepared for violence, but he does proudly assert his right to live in the house he purchased.
Ossian experiences surprise when he walks into the interview room to find a gentle and professional Ted Kennedy leading the interviews. His presence creates at least a veneer of justice, since his interview style avoids the thuggery and intimidation that many Black prisoners face. In Ossian’s initial police interview, he initially tries to protect himself by feigning ignorance. But when Kennedy presses him too far, he does take a principled stand and asserts his civil rights.
The rest of the men stick to the same story of coincidence rather than conspiracy despite their fear. Kennedy, slowly undermining small details in their alibis, still fails to break even the weakest member of the group. Everyone in the house agrees on two things, however: the house was under assault before the shooting began, and no one was near the upstairs windows when it started.
The defenders’ initial statements provide the core element of the defense strategy in the subsequent criminal court case. They admit that they were armed, but they insist that they were defending themselves from attack.
Gladys strikes a more defiant tone than the men, showing pride in the stand she and Ossian took. She knew she was moving into a white neighborhood and there might be trouble, she says, but she believes that she has as much right as anyone to live in a house she owns. But she still stonewalls Kennedy’s attempts to prove that the assault was planned or to place the smoking gun in anyone’s hands.
In her testimony, Gladys asserts her and Ossian’s right to defend themselves and their home. But she goes farther than her husband, who feigned ignorance about moving into a neighborhood entirely populated by white people. In doing so, she asserts their humanity, their right to home ownership, and the equal rights the constitution allegedly grants them but which, in practice, are not extended to most Black citizens in early 20th century America.
Henry also shows no hint of contrition for the night’s events, admitting that he picked up his rifle and went upstairs when the bombardment of rocks began. He even admits to firing the rifle—above the heads of the crowds and just to frighten them into retreat. But Henry refuses to pin the fatal shots on himself or any of his companions. And he centers self-defense: before he fired, he says, “the stones were pouring down like rain” and he had no doubt that the mob threatened his life.
Henry’s testimony focuses on the threat the mob posed to the family and their friends inside the house. Like Gladys, he asserts his claim on equal rights proudly, while still protecting himself legally by refusing to admit any culpability in Leon Breiner’s death. And his words, equating the frequency of the stones hitting the house to rain, eloquently capture the chaos of the mob scene and the imminence of the danger.
News of the shooting tears through Detroit’s Black elite. Perry asks Cecil Rowlette, the Black attorney who represented Fleta Mathies and Alexander Turner, to join Ossian’s defense. A neighbor, who happens to be on the board of the Detroit NAACP chapter, picks up Watson’s call to Charles Mahoney. Rowlette and Mahoney both grew up facing discrimination and hardship but rose to the ranks of the talented tenth thanks to their educations. Both advocate for civil rights. Perry, Rowlette, and Mahoney likely go to police headquarters, but they’re denied access to their clients, whom the police have yet to formally charge. The attorneys hope that if they can get a motion in front of one of the liberal judges, like Frank Murphy, they will be able to expedite their clients’ release. Meanwhile, the NAACP prepares to bring its political weight to bear on the case as well.
The house defenders have access to skilled Black lawyers, in part thanks to the ways that Reconstruction opened avenues for education and professionalization to Black people. But progress is still slow, so organizations like the NAACP are necessary to ensure that the promises of Reconstruction come to pass. The lawyers’ hope that they can get the case in front of a liberal justice shows yet again how imbalanced the justice system is in reality. The system’s bias toward white interests means that Black defendants will need to get their case in front of a particularly sympathetic judge.
Meanwhile, back on Garland Avenue, Schuknecht’s 200-man reserve holds back the crowd until it dissolves, its hatred and anger spent. He gives a reporter from the Detroit Free Press (the preferred paper of the city’s working-class white population) comments and a tour of the house. The story in the paper the following morning quotes Schuknecht’s claims that the street was “perfectly peaceful” when the shooting began. It speculates that the Sweets were spoiling for a fight and dwells with pathos and sympathy on Leon Breiner’s senseless death and his family’s plight. Similar stories run in the middle-class Detroit Times and the elite Detroit News, even though a News reporter, Philip Adler, found himself on the scene, where he witnessed the crowd throwing stones at the house while the police stood by.
The newspaper reports unquestioningly accept statements from an officer on a police force that has demonstrated ongoing, pervasive, and systemic prejudice against Black Detroiters. This demonstrates the color line at work: with white and Black residents largely separated from each other and each focused on the needs and concerns of their own community, biased ideas circulate easily. And where dissenting viewpoints exist—like Philip Adler’s—they are often silenced to reinforce the status quo. This also highlights the injustice of a segregated society: public opinion condemns the defendants before they’re even charged by the police.
These accounts help to explain why County Prosecutor Robert Toms feels it necessary to bring Ossian, Gladys, and their companions to trial. He is a fair and judicious man who has declared it better to let 99 criminals go free than to wrongfully condemn one innocent person. But he has political aspirations, and although he isn’t a member himself, he can’t afford to alienate the Klan, a powerful voting bloc. However, despite his conviction that, with racial tensions running so high, he must bring the case to trial, he sees its weaknesses. All of the testimony points towards self-defense, a sacrosanct right in American law.
Even normally progressive, liberal judges and politicians feel the need to hedge their bets against the Klan’s evident political ascendancy. Toms can see that the prosecution’s case is a weak one, but he still feels the need to appease voters with white supremacist beliefs and affiliations. And racial prejudices create the potential for him to win a case that, on legal precedent alone, the prosecution should lose.
The prosecution can only successfully fight a claim of self-defense if it proves that there was no vicious, threatening mob in the street. As it happens, Michigan law defines “mobs” as 12 or more armed or 30 or more unarmed people assembled “to intimidate or inflict harm,” and as little as $25 of property damage counts. All the suspects confirmed that the Sweets had reason to be afraid. But when Ted Kennedy interviews Inspector Schuknecht, the policeman swears that he saw no more than a dozen people in the street before the shooting and only about 30 afterwards. Likewise, the rocks littering the roof and porch appeared after the shots. Otto Lemhagen colorfully adds that he saw a “hard-boiled” Gladys laughing triumphantly as the police stormed in.
The Sweets’ experience on Garland Avenue certainly meets the low legal threshold for mob violence. Yet, this standard hasn’t prevented a summer of violence against Black Detroit homeowners, highlighting the impunity white mobs feel when attacking Black victims. This in turn points towards the pervasive prejudice and segregation in a society that doesn’t hold white mobs criminally accountable for their actions. And the ease with which white police officers like Schuknecht and Lemhagen bend the truth to protect the color line shows how deep racial prejudice runs.
Across the street, however, the Ray and Kathleen Dove claim they saw at least 50 people milling in the street before the shooting. Kennedy quickly drops this line of questioning before it can undermine his case. But even when he tries to focus on threat, he gets unwanted answers; neighbors confirm that people threw stones before the shooting, although with Kennedy’s encouragement, they quickly downsize their memories to recall mere pebbles. Thus, Kennedy reasons that with more encouragement, the neighbors could say the right things to convince a jury to convict.
The eyewitness accounts immediately start to contradict the prosecution’s desired story. The Doves may not have wanted the Sweets as neighbors, but they aren’t as politically savvy as the police officers or the prosecutor’s office. Kennedy drops lines of questioning that threaten to reveal troublesome information, clearly demonstrating how his personal prejudice leads him to conduct a biased investigation—one that he hopes won’t give the Sweets justice.
While Kennedy interviews Garland Avenue neighbors, Ossian, Gladys, and the others sweat in jail. William Davis, a federal narcotics officer—another member of the talented tenth—breaks first, afraid of sacrificing a promising career. He confesses that Ossian said that “he was prepared to look after himself” if necessary and that he had the weapons to do so. And he accuses Leonard Morse and Joe Mack of shooting. Hoping to have saved his own skin but stewing in guilt, Davis then returns to his jail cell.
The members of the party—especially those who considered themselves part of the talented tenth, with a claim to the American Dream—seemed to have understood themselves as defending the dignity and civil rights of all Black people in addition to the house. But in a prejudicial and segregated system, it’s dangerous to take this kind of a stand, and Davis’ confession shows how easily threats of violence and retribution (such as the potential end of his career) can curtail the fight for justice and civil rights.
The first sign of legal trouble comes on the afternoon of Thursday, September 10th, the day following the shootings. A liberal judge denies the motion offered by Perry, Rowlette, and Mahoney to dismiss the charges, but this forces the Prosecutor’s hand. His office presents charges to Frank Murphy, revealing that they plan to charge the group with first degree murder. More alarmingly, Murphy shows no signs of offering sympathy or mercy to the defendants. That night, the Klan holds a rally filled with racist vitriol and cheers for their mayoral candidate. And the next morning, Murphy hands down warrants for charges against all 11 accused.
The Sweets’ actions clearly fall under the umbrella of self-defense both in terms of legal precedent and common sense. But it happens at a moment of increasingly overt racialized violence, led by the Klan and other groups. Even progressive Detroit judges (who are elected officials in the United States and are thus vulnerable to voters’ displeasure in future elections) hesitate to show favor towards these Black defendants for fear of angering white voters. And, to pander to the interests of some white constituents, the prosecution presents clearly excessive charges. Nativist and white supremacist voters have the power to prevent, or at least seriously hobble, justice in this case.
Three days after the shooting, on Saturday, Perry, Rowlette, and Mahoney finally get access to their clients. The NAACP will cover all costs associated with their defense and has planned a massive fundraiser. Ossian provides the legal team with his official statement, the same shaky one he gave to Kennedy. The situation continues to deteriorate: a judge denies bail for everyone, including Gladys. And the city is awash with the kinds of rumors that precede race riots.
For the Black defendants in the Sweet case, the personal is political, since the timing of the shooting coincides with the runup to the mayoral election. As the NAACP joins the defense, it becomes increasingly clear that the subsequent trial will not just consider the guilt or innocence of the Sweets and their friends. Rather, it will pit the advocates of civil rights and integration against white supremacy and segregation.
Liberal mayor John Smith, swept into office with the overwhelming support of Black voters, delivers the worst blow on Sunday. In an open letter to the police commissioner, he blames the Klan’s social and political machinations, even going so far as to claim that the Klan has been tempting Black families to move into white neighborhoods to provoke violence. But he also blames the Black community for inciting violence by demanding their legal rights. Claiming the social benefits of segregation, Smith declares that any Black person who endangers his or her own life and property out of a misplaced sense of pride is not only an agent of violence, but an enemy to the Black race.
If the liberal judges, including Frank Murphy, initially disappointed the defense team, John Smith deals a worse blow. Despite what he owes to the Black voters of Detroit, in light of facing a Klan-backed opponent in the upcoming election, he abandons his Black supporters—even blaming them for inciting the summer’s violence—to try to woo white voters. And his statement points out the cruel fact of life for Black Americans in the early 20th century: although they had equal rights in law and in theory, in practice, political and social forces often conspired to deny them these rights.
Stung by this betrayal, both the talented tenth and the lowlier denizens of Black Bottom understand the danger of the moment. The Sweets’ case has become something bigger than a case of self-defense. It has become a referendum on whether Jim Crow will be allowed to rule in the North as well as the South.
Abandoned by John Smith, their one-time white political ally, the Black community in Detroit prepares to learn whether its future will be hopeful—or whether social conditions are once again going to backslide.