Reviews in American History 33.2 (2005) 241-248
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On a warm July night in 1919, a gang of whites dragged a black man off a streetcar in Washington, DC, and beat him in full view of the evening crowd. Ossian Sweet, then a medical student at Howard University, happened to be walking by. He watched in horror as the beating continued: "the sickening sound of fists and boots slamming against bone, the victim curling his body into the fetal position to avoid the blows, the stream of blood filling the cracks in the cement," as Kevin Boyle imagines the scene in his wonderful new book on the unrelated court case that would soon make Sweet a political martyr (p. 97).
It was not the first time that Sweet had encountered such violence. In 1901, a mob of whites in his hometown of East Bartow, Florida, had roasted alive sixteen-year-old Fred Rochelle, a local black boy accused of raping and murdering a white woman. Sweet later claimed that he had seen the whole thing as a five-year-old hiding in the bushes, inhaling the scent of burning human flesh. Boyle suggests that this may be a false memory, the product of a fear so profound that the young Sweet convinced himself he had witnessed the lynching. "Either way," Boyle writes, "the effect was the same. The image of the conflagration—the heart-pounding fear of it—had been seared into his memory" (p. 69).
These images—of a white mob, of black men burning and beaten—would return to Sweet in 1925, when he opened the door of his new home in Detroit to find his white neighbors throwing stones and screaming, "Here's niggers!" "There they go!" "Get them! Get them!" (p. 37). What he saw in that moment, Boyle writes, was not just an immediate threat to his house and his family, but decades, even centuries, of black history literally coming home. "When I opened the door and saw the mob, I realized I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people through its entire history," Sweet would later recall on the stand in court. "In my mind I was pretty confident of what I was up against, with my back against the wall. I was filled with a peculiar fear, the [End Page 241] fear of one who knows the history of my race." (p. 290) The actions that he took as a result of this sense of threat—actions that would catapult him on to the front pages of black newspapers and to the front lines of the battle over residential segregation in the North—form the narrative framework of Boyle's compelling new work.
Beginning on the night of September 9, 1925, when members of the "Waterworks Park Improvement Association" gathered to force the Sweet family to leave all-white Garland Avenue, Boyle follows Ossian Sweet both forward and backward in time, from his childhood as the son of Florida sharecroppers to his eventual suicide, alone and broken, in a Detroit apartment house. In between, Boyle offers not only a gripping tale of Sweet's bid for courtroom justice, but also a fascinating tour of black (and, to a lesser degree, white) politics in the urban North. The critical moment in Sweet's life, and in the book itself, comes and goes fairly quickly: On September 9, someone in the Sweet home shot into the white mob on Garland Avenue, killing one white man and injuring another. From then on, a single, pressing question dominated Ossian Sweet's life: Were the shots justified?
While the Sweet case provides the book's narrative focus, Boyle's true subject is the United States' shocking and often unacknowledged history of extralegal violence: vigilantism, lynching, terrorism. The awareness of past violence that Sweet expressed so eloquently in court—"I was filled with . . . the...