Play details tragedy of a life damaged by bias

Playwright Gordon Bennett of "My Name Is Ossian Sweet," about a tragedy of bias.
Playwright Gordon Bennett of "My Name Is Ossian Sweet," about a tragedy of bias. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 16, 2014

WAYNE In a civil rights anthology of heroes and defining moments, the story of Ossian Sweet is a tragedy.

The Detroit physician just wanted a nice house for his family. But the neighborhood didn't want him.

So, as in urban centers across the United States, including Philadelphia, an unruly mob surrounded a home. But in the Sweet incident, there were shootings, a legendary lawyer, a future Supreme Court justice, and, eventually, a suicide.

Gordon Bennett, a playwright and emeritus professor at Eastern University in St. Davids, has taken the relatively unknown story and transformed it into a play that will make its Philadelphia area debut next Saturday and Feb. 23.

My Name Is Ossian Sweet is a portrayal of an unassuming doctor who had no intention of becoming an activist or symbol.

"He was a very brave man, an intellectual who believed in the American dream," said Bennett, of Coatesville. "His story needs to be exposed."

It was 1925, before what is considered the civil rights era, a time when upwardly mobile African Americans in Northern cities often lived in white neighborhoods. But fear and opposition intensified as the black population increased with the Great Migration.

In this volatile atmosphere, Sweet moved into a modest bungalow in a working-class neighborhood, said Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, an award-winning book about Sweet, published in 2004.

Bennett read Boyle's book shortly after it was published and decided to adapt Sweet's story for the stage. A peace and justice activist and former pastor, Bennett had a longtime interest in stories about injustice.

In Sweet, he found one in which it might seem as if injustice wins, Boyle said.

No happy ending

Sweet, born in Bartow, Fla., worked his way through Howard University Medical School. He studied in Paris and later moved to Detroit to settle with his family in his wife's hometown.

When the family moved into its new home, it brought weapons. Other black families had been violently harassed as they moved into white neighborhoods. The Sweets - and the relatives and friends who were with them - were prepared to defend themselves.

Screaming crowds gathered immediately, and on the second night, rocks were hurled into the house. Someone fired from the Sweets' second floor. One man in the crowd was injured, another killed.

All 11 people in the Sweet house were arrested and charged with murder, including Sweet's wife, Gladys. The group remained in prison until the trial. During those two months, NAACP officials persuaded the famed lawyer Clarence Darrow - who had just represented the defendant in the Scopes "Monkey" trial - to take the case.

Darrow argued before an all-white jury that could not reach a verdict, resulting in a mistrial declared by Judge Frank Murphy, who went on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. A retrial of Sweet's brother, who was suspected of firing the fatal shot, ended in an acquittal.

But there was no happy ending for Sweet.

"It ruined him," said Boyle, an American history professor at Northwestern University.

Sweet's wife and baby daughter soon afterward died of tuberculosis, which Sweet believed his wife contracted in prison. Sweet went on to practice medicine. He ran for Congress, and lost. He ran to lead a chapter of the NAACP, and lost. Eventually, he also lost his house when he couldn't afford the taxes.

Sweet wound up living alone above his medical practice. In 1960, he committed suicide at 64.

Heroic actions

Bennett has re-created this story in a script that will be produced at his church, Central Baptist in Wayne. Show proceeds will benefit the Main Line Martin Luther King Association, a scholarship group. (Snow dates are March 1 and 2.)

Bennett researched and wrote the play over a year. He created dialogue based on Darrow's arguments in court transcripts.

When Roxanne Wright, a fellow member of Central Baptist, heard about the play, she went to Bennett to propose producing it for Black History Month.

Wright, acting as the producer, contacted churches and local organizations and, via social media, found the drama's stars, professional actors Kyle Moore and Latonya Grant. Wright portrays Sweet's mother, Dora.

Wright and Bennett hope the production will help spread the word about Sweet, a man whose story remains obscure, partly because it happened before the civil rights movement era.

The story also is not widely known because Sweet's heroic actions lead to no easily identifiable transformative result, Boyle said.

"Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and that act of defiance broke down a barrier," Boyle said. Sweet's case is more complex.

Sweet stood up to an injustice. It broke him, and housing segregation still exists.

But the hope and courage of the Sweets inspired others, Bennett said. "It inspired me."


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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