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Detroit History Portrayed On Stage

February 16 2012 | 1 comment

The story begins on Garland Street one hot September night in 1925.  Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black physician, bought a house in the all-white east side neighborhood.  He had just moved in with his wife and young daughter.  500 angry neighbors gathered on Garland Street to let the new family know they were not welcome.


Dr. Sweet’s two brothers, Otis, a local dentist, and Henry, a university student, were at the house.  So were seven other men.  There had been warnings that trouble was likely.  So the men were armed with rifles.

When rocks began to pelt the house, the men inside fired.  One man in the street was killed.  Another was wounded.

Police arrested all eleven adults in the house, including Sweet’s wife, Gladys.

They were held in jail 84 days.  Their first trial ended with a hung jury.

What happened next was the basis for the book Arc of Justice.  The book was the basis for a play written and directed by Detroiter Brenda Perryman.

The play is a dramatization of the second trial.  This time only Dr. Sweet’s brother Henry was tried because he admitted to police he fired a weapon.

The prosecutor in the case was Robert Toms.  The defense attorney was the nationally renowned Clarence Darrow, who had been persuaded by the NAACP to take the case.

The judge was Frank Murphy, who later became Detroit mayor, Michigan governor and U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

William Giovan is portraying Frank Murphy in the play.  Judge Giovan worked as a Recorders Court Judge in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, named for his character in the play.

Judge Giovan says “This was really a legal landmark and made possible by Judge Frank Murphy himself who was a person who respected the rights of the accused and oppressed minorities before it was popular to do so.

So much has changed since the Sweet trial.  Why does Brenda Perryman think the play is relevant today?  “Because you learn from history, you learn how to avoid repeating history.  You can take something good from this.”

And you can see a very interesting play.

If you would like to see it, the play, Dr. Sweet’s Tinderbox, will be performed Wednesday, February 22 at 7:00pm in the GM Theatre of the Charles Wright Museum of African American History.  There is no cost to attend the event.

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  1. Alexis Kerr February 16, 2012

    This interview was fantastic. I can’t wait to see the play.


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