One Man's Castle: Clarence Darrow in the Defense of the American Dream by Phyllis Vine (2004), New York, NY, Amistad Books.

February 2014

 

This extensively researched and beautifully presented tragedy of Dr. Ossian Sweet's effort to reside in a home he purchased in an all-white Detroit neighborhood in 1925 rings with racial ramifications for our time.  The White mobs that threatened his life and that of his family were more vicious but hardly less resistant than the opposition confronted by people of color today as they seek, still in too many areas, housing that their hearts desire and their pocketbooks can afford.

-Derrick Bell

 

With the sustained suspense of a detective story, Phyllis Vine reconstructs a forgotten piece of history, the collision between a Black physician, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Detroit police in 1925.  More than a dramatic retelling of America's most haunted cases, it vividly reminds us that the long, bitter struggle for respect and dignity continues today. Everyone concerned about justice and human rights will benefit from this book.

- Blanche Wiesen Cook

 

The above written reviews capture the essence of One Man's Castle.  Integration was a complex and hard fought battle by those few Black folks that had the means to challenge the status quo.  During Black History Month, I wanted to read something that would provide me some background on Black people in America.  Although I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in South Carolina, the remnants of segregation were still very evident.  I remember living on the south side of my town across the railroad tracks that was the line of demarcation that separated Blacks from the Whites in most Southern towns.  My ideas of the North was that they were urban enclaves of integration and that the struggles we faced in the South pertaining to back door entries to the dentist office and balcony seating at the movie theater were a thing of the past.

 

This book captured the cost of integration in the North. Ossian Sweet, a respected Black medical doctor, purchased a modest home on the periphery of a White neighborhood in Detroit.  Previous attempts to purchase homes in White neighborhoods had led to riots, violence, and death threats. These tactics forced Black home owners from their homes and in some cases the homes were ransacked and then set on fire.  These violent actions were ignored by the police and celebrated in the local neighborhoods.

 

Dr. Sweet was aware of the danger of such a purchase, but during the 1920s there were limited homes for a man of his stature in the Black neighborhood.  This was the height of the Great Migration in which many Blacks traveled to the North for jobs and opportunities, but found limited housing to accommodate the masses.  In preparation to defend his home, Dr. Sweet invited several of his friends and brothers to stand watch at the windows and ordered that if violence erupted, they were to shoot their guns above the crowd to thwart forced entry.  The crowd did gather and the shouts, rock throwing, and angry mob actions warranted the warning shots to be fired.  When the shots were heard, the police who were in close proximity came through the crowd and arrested Dr. Sweet, his wife, and their guests.  Unbeknownst to the Sweets and their guests, a White man was shot during the mob action and the Sweets and their guests were charged with murder.

 

Ossian Sweet was defended by Clarence Darrow and supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The book captured the events of the times, the emerging NAACP organization, and the legal acrobatics of Clarence Darrow.  This was an engaging history lesson and provided me a glimpse into the endless sacrifices that were made, the complacency of equal protection laws, and the biased interpretation of these laws. This is indeed a book depicting  Black history, but also one that chronicles the bleakness of our American heritage.

 
Dr. Dwight C. Watson, Dean

College of Education

University of Northern Iowa