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Detroit Housing

In the 1920s, black Detroiters were confined to designated "black" neighborhoods and barred from purchasing or residing in homes outside those areas.

Blacks aspiring to homeownership faced opposition from white Detroiters, driven by unfounded fears. Their hearts were closed to the character or values of black individuals, focusing solely on skin color. The mere presence of a black person in a white neighborhood ignited panic among white residents, fearing a decline in property values and the erosion of their American Dream.

In 1925, "race disturbances" erupted when two black professional families attempted to move into white neighborhoods. Dr. Alex L. Turner faced hostility when he moved into an all-white area on Spokane Street. A mob, backed by the Klan, vandalized their home, forcing them to flee without police intervention.

Dr. Ossian Sweet's experience mirrored Dr. Turner's nightmare. As a black physician, Dr. Sweet had limited job opportunities and bought a home in a white neighborhood on Garland Street. On their first night, they were besieged by an angry mob. Refusing to yield, Dr. Sweet defended his American Dream with friends and family, leading to a confrontation where shots were fired, resulting in casualties and arrests.

The trial, overseen by Judge Frank Murphy, drew sensationalized media coverage, exacerbating racial tensions in the segregated city.

Defended by Clarence Darrow, the accused faced an all-white jury, resulting in a hung verdict. In a retrial, Dr. Sweet's brother was acquitted before the remaining charges were dropped.

However, housing nightmares persisted for blacks in Detroit. By 1940, with a population of 1.6 million, including 150,000 blacks, housing conditions in black neighborhoods deteriorated. White residents vehemently opposed integration, even demanding walls like the Birwood Wall to segregate black homes from theirs, perpetuating racial segregation in the city.

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Dr. Ossian Sweet and his attorneys - Julian Perry, Arthur Hays, and Clarence Darrow 


Detroit's Wailing Wall in 2014 - The 1/2 mile wall is about 6' high and about a foot thick.

Black Detroiters faced not only violence and restrictive covenants but also discrimination in lending. However, with a "can-do" attitude and good old American resilience, they overcame these challenges. Businessmen like Everett Watson stepped in, not only providing loans for mortgages when other sources were denied to blacks but also constructing housing on the west side of the city.

In 1944, the McGhees, a black couple, moved into a home in an all-white neighborhood on the west side of Detroit. A white neighboring family, the Sipes, filed and won a court order revoking the McGhees' purchase of the house, citing a restrictive covenant forbidding non-white residents from purchasing property there. The McGhees fought the court order and were represented by attorney Thurgood Marshall. They appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall argued that the court enforcement of restrictive racial covenants violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. He also cited a provision from the United Nations Charter stating that people, specifically the black McGhees, had a human right to live where they pleased - they had the right to universal respect, the right to human rights, which included the right of every person to have adequate housing.

In 1948, the court decided in favor of the McGhees and upheld the principle of freedom from discrimination in the enjoyment of property rights. Ironically, years later, the McGhees and Sipes would become close friends, showing that when we strip away race and accept people for who they are, we are more alike than different. Thurgood Marshall would become our country’s first black Supreme Court justice.

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The McGhee's home at 4646 Seebaldt in Detroit, Michigan.

Discrimination in Detroit

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