SHERIFF'S CORNER: The story of Dr. Ossian Sweet

The trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet along with family members and friends for murder after a mob attacked his Detroit home caught the nation’s attention in 1925 and 1926.

In this edition of the "Sheriff's Corner,'' I tell you about the little known story of Dr. Ossian Sweet, and how some gun laws were based on discrimination.

It all started September 1925, when Dr. Ossian Sweet moved his family into a two-story home in a neighborhood near the Eastside of Detroit. The only problem was that Dr. Sweet, a respected gynecologist and graduate of Howard University, was black and the neighborhood he moved into was white.

The success of Sweet’s medical practice allowed the doctor to purchase a new home for his wife Gladys and his young daughter. In Dr. Sweet's own words, "I have to die a man or live a coward."

Shortly after moving in, Dr. Sweet had received threats from various white neighbors and community activists in opposition to Dr. Sweet and his family moving into the neighborhood.

On one evening, Dr. Sweet and his family were assembled inside their home with several family members and friends. Due to the fore mentioned threats, Dr. Sweet felt the need to have a few extra people at his residence for added safety. The local police were also aware of the situation, having assigned a few officers to the block.

Later that evening, a mob assembled outside his residence. The officers patrolling the block were mere spectators, not trying to control the mob or their activity. At one point the mob started throwing stones at the house with one of them smashing out a window showering Dr. Sweet with shards of glass.

With the hostile actions taken by the mob, and people approaching his house, while fearing for his life, Dr. Sweet retrieved his gun and went upstairs to get a better view of what was going on outside. Rounds were fired from the house and into the crowd. It was unclear who fired the shots, being that other members of Dr. Sweet’s family were also armed and opened fire. Two individuals on the outside were struck, one was fatally wounded. It was unclear as to whose rounds struck either individual.

Subsequent to this, Dr. Sweet and other family members were arrested and charged with murder. The first trial ended in a hung jury, and following the second trial, Dr. Sweet, as well as other family members, were acquitted of the murder charges from an all-white jury.

A well known civil rights attorney named Clarence Darrow who represented Dr. Sweet, stated in his closing arguments: "Your verdict means something in this case. It means something more than the fate of this boy. It is not often that a case is submitted to 12 men where the decision may mean a milestone in the history of the human race. But this case does. And I hope and trust that you have a feeling of responsibility that will make you take it and do your duty as citizens of a great nation, and as members of the human family, which is better still."

However, tragedy plagued his later life. Dr. Sweet lost the family he had purchased the house for in the first place. His daughter, Iva, died of tuberculosis in 1926, at the age of 2. His wife, Gladys, succumbed to the same disease soon after.

In 1944, he sold the house in Detroit and purchased a pharmacy, where he lived above the store. In 1960, after years of ill health and depression, he was found dead, with a self inflicted gunshot wound.

As a result of this case, the Klu Klux Klan (who were more politically involved in those days) lobbied for and obtained more restrictive gun regulation in Michigan. Public Acts of 1927 included mandatory purchase permits, safety inspections and the formation of “county gun boards.”

The thought was to limit and hinder the availability of African-Americans in obtaining firearms. So, you can see by this story how gun laws have had an angle of being discriminatory in itself.

This information is provided to you for clarification on specific laws, and not legal advice. This is not to be construed as a personal opinion, agreement or disagreement of any specific law. If you have any questions on any specific topic, you may always email me your questions to