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With 'Dr. Sweet's Tinderbox' Wright Museum Tackles Legacy Of Segregation

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Gladys and Dr. Ossian Sweet
Gladys and Dr. Ossian Sweet

In 1925, Dr. Ossian Sweet, a successful African-American physician, moved his family into an all-white neighborhood on Detroit's east side. Soon after, he faced off against a rampaging racist mob determined drive the Sweets from their home.

After the confrontation left one man dead and another injured, Detroit police arrested Sweet and several associates and charged them with first-degree murder. Sweet argued self defense.

After a jury failed to reach a verdict in Sweet's trial, prosecutors went after his brother, Henry, naming the doctor and 10 associates, including his wife Gladys, as conspirators.

The NAACP recruited Clarence Darrow, the most famous lawyer of the period, to defend the group, bringing publicity to the case. Ultimately, a jury acquitted Henry Sweet and dismissed the charges against the others. The verdict was seen as a triumph over residential segregation.

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History is planning a reenactment of this pivotal moment in civil rights history that's almost unknown outside Detroit.

"Dr. Sweet's Tinderbox," an original one-act play, will tell the Sweets' story as part of the museum's programming on contemporary segregation issues.

Mike Fanon, a spokesman for the museum, hopes audience members will view the performance as an opportunity to "examine public policy and criminal justice through the lens of 1920s Detroit and see what changes have occurred and see what conditions continue to linger."

Playwright Brenda Perryman told HuffPost that modern concerns helped shape the direction of "Dr. Sweet's Tinderbox."

"The approach was to parallel some of the things that are going on today," she said, "There's a point in the play where Dr. Sweet does mention how he wasn't going to be relegated to live in Black Bottom [an African-American neighborhood], because they had no street lights, the sewerage was bad -- and that really reminded me a lot of what's going on right now."

The Michigan Humanities Council is sponsoring the event as part of its annual Great Michigan Read program. Each year, the council chooses a Michigan-themed book to highlight with cultural programming. This year's book, "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age," by Ohio State University history professor Kevin Boyle, examines the Sweet trial in the context of its time. ("Dr. Sweet's Tinderbox" is based on the book.)

Echoing Perryman, Boyle noted that while the Sweet trial was seminal, its legacy is up for debate.

"I'd like to say that it stopped the spread of segregation, but it didn't," he told HuffPost in an email. "In the years after the Sweet trial, the color line hardened. And it remains in place still. So the story is, in many ways, a tragedy."

Wright plans to use the Sweet trial as a jumping off point for further discussions around segregation.

On Thursday, the museum will host a public policy debate on busing desegregation led by local high school students.

Students will argue the pros and cons of Milliken v. Bradley, a Supreme Court decision to limit inter-district school desegregation remedies. Students have competed for the opportunity participate in the debate and have prepared in-depth policy analyses with special assistance from the Michigan State University Debate Team.

Programming also includes poems by youth from InsideOut Literary Arts and a panel discussion mixing students with community leaders, including U.S. Rep. John Conyers.

Boyle praised the museum's interactive approach to history.

"During the book tour [for "Arc of Justice"] I got the chance to talk to high school students in Marquette, Flint and Detroit," he said. "They've got really important things to say about race in America today. We really need to be listening to them. "

The student debate will take place Jan. 12 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The performance of "Dr. Sweet's Tinderbox" will take place Jan. 14 at 1 p.m. followed by a poetry reading from InsideOut Literary Arts and a panel discussion moderated by Wayne State University Associate Professor Jocelyn Benson. Panelists include Judge Denise Page Hood of the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of Michigan, U.S. Congressman John Conyers, Jr., and Wayne State University Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Dr. Irshad Altheimer.

Both events are free and open to the public. The Wright museum Museum is located at 315 East Warren Avenue in Detroit. RSVP is required; email mfannon@chwmuseum.org or tbrown@chwmuseum.org, or call (313) 494-5800.

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January 14, 2012 at... | Facebook