In the 1920s, black Detroiters were forced to live in designated "black" neighborhoods and denied the ability to purchase or live in homes outside of those areas.
Blacks trying to obtain that dream of homeownership ran into opposition from white Detroiters who frankly feared them without knowing them. It did not matter what a black person’s heart or value system was. Nor did it matter that we are more alike than different. All that mattered was skin color. The mere existence of a black person in a white neighborhood stoked fear in white Detroiters’ hearts. Fear that their property value would plummet, and it would. Fear that their American Dream would be ruined.
In 1925, a number of “race disturbances” broke out in the city when two professional black families tried to move into white neighborhoods in the city. The first occurred when Dr. Alex L. Turner moved into a home on Spokane Street, which was an all-white neighborhood in Detroit. He and his family were forced to abandon their home when a mob backed by the Klan broke into their home, and removed the family's furniture and property. As Dr. Turner and his wife left their home, they were attacked by a mob and received no help from the police.
Dr. Ossian Sweet's nightmare occurred next. Dr. Sweet was also a black physician who like other black doctors had limited places where he could work. He found work at Dunbar Hospital, Detroit’s first black hospital. After working hard and saving his money, he bought a home in 1925 in an all-white working class neighborhood located at 2905 Garland Street.
As they moved in, the Sweets were met by an angry mob on that first night in September. Dr. Sweet refused to be forced out, refused to be frightened, or denied his American Dream. On the second night, Dr. Sweet got a number of friends and family to stay with him for protection. Armed, the men took positions in the house to defend it. Again, an angry mob gathered and threw rocks and other projectiles at the house. An upstairs window was shattered, and in the uproar and confusion that followed, someone fired and two people were shot - one person in the leg, and another fatally. Everyone in the house was arrested for murder.
The trial was presided over by Frank Murphy who was considered a liberal judge at the time.
The media had a field day with its stories concerning the incident. As was the norm, the media stoked fear and worked to further divide an already segregated city.
The accused were defended by the legendary attorney Clarence Darrow. Darrow defended the accused before an all-white jury that resulted in a hung jury. When the case was retried, Dr. Sweet’s brother was found not guilty by another all-white jury, before the prosecutor decided to drop the charges against the remaining defendants.
This would not be the end of housing nightmares for blacks in Detroit. In 1940, Detroit had 1.6 million citizens, with about 150,000 being black. Conditions in black neighborhoods were even worse and the need for housing to accommodate overcrowding was even more pressing. As homes were being built, whites wanted no part in having black neighbors and went to extremes to ensure they did not. For example, when new homes were being built for blacks in 1941, nearby white neighbors required a wall be built to separate their homes. It still stands today and is called the Birwood Wall or Detroit’s Wailing Wall. The wall is located between Birwood Ave. and Mendota St - it runs from Eight Mile Rd to Pembroke Ave.
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 had to contend with not just violence, and restrictive covenants, but with discrimination in lending. With a “can-do” attitude, and good old American resilience, they overcame. Black business men like Everett Watson stepped in to not only loan money for mortgages when blacks were denied other sources, but he also built 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 westside 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 was 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 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 when we strip away race and accept people for that people - we are more alike than different. Thurgood Marshall would become our country’s first black Supreme Court justice.
The McGhee's home at 4646 Seebaldt in Detroit, Michigan.