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on January 28, 2009
ONE MAN'S CASTLE describes the experience of an individual who became part of what historians term the "Great Migration" or "Southern Exodus". During the early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of Southerners left the land of their birth and traveled north in search of more prosperous lives and, in the case of the main characters in this book, personal safety. Specifically, the book is about Florida-born, African-American Ossian Sweet (1895-1960) after he migrated to Detroit in the early 1920s and of a tragic incident that happened in late summer 1925 while Sweet was living in the so-called Promised Land.

Ossian Sweet, a Howard University-trained medical doctor, married Gladys Atkinson from Pittsburgh, and together they had a daughter. Desiring to acquire a nice home for his family, Dr. Sweet bought a bungalow and attempted to move into a primarily European immigrant neighborhood on Detroit's east side.

This was a 1920s Detroit where Ku Klux Klan members were likely to be members of the Police Department and where a KKK-backed candidate had nearly been elected mayor of the city the year before. Amidst incidents in the city involving blacks moving into previously all-white neighborhoods (protected by so-called restrictive covenants), Dr. Sweet not only purchased a house in such a neighborhood but prepared, with family members and friends, to defend his home (10 weapons, 400 rounds) against those who might try to prevent this.

On the evening of September 9, 1925 a group of whites gathered across the street, and some began pelting the Sweet house with stones and rocks. Police stationed in the area did not intervene, and shots rang out from the Sweet house resulting in one person across the street dead and another wounded. The police next arrested all eleven persons in the Sweet house; prosecutors charged them with conspiring to commit murder. The NAACP secured prominent attorney Clarence Darrow to defend the accused, who were all eventually cleared of charges (and life in prison) after two trials.

What is the significance of this case? For the Sweets, it could not have been much of a victory. Shortly after this, the baby daughter and then Gladys died from tuberculosis. Dr. Sweet was unsuccessful later in both marriage and political career and committed suicide in his sixties. Restricitve covenants remained legal until a Supreme Court decision in the late 1940s. Later, redlining and other real estate devices assisted in continuing residential segregation. Indeed, as this review is written, the Detroit area is one of the most segregated in the entire country.

This book was overshadowed by publication (in the same year) of another book on the Sweet case, Kevin Boyle's ARC OF JUSTICE, which won a National Book Award, an honor richly deserved. While slightly different in approach, this book is superb too, and even more readable than the Boyle book. Read both books if you can.

Tim Koerner
January 2009
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on October 11, 2013
This book had been languishing on the shelves of my bookshop, but it looked interesting so I finally decided to pick it up and read it. Very glad I took the plunge; this is informative book, a fascinating book, and an important book.

Unlike one of the main reviews posted by Amazon, I'm quite impressed with Phyllis Vine's writing ability, both the way she presents the historical facts and the way that she skillfully weaves the tale, akin to a courtroom drama that you've find in a John Grisham novel. But, obviously, this was no fictional tale, but an all-too-real and very disturbing episode that was buried in the mainstream press and America's history books. Most people have heard of the infamous Emmett Till lynching and other heinous attacks on Black Americans during the past two centuries, but those were only the tip of a very ugly iceberg, and this book offers many other examples of lynchings and riots that happened around the country --- including the indident involving Dr. Ossian Sweet that forms the focus of this book --- during the early 1900s. I was both shocked and outraged to read about what happened to Dr. Sweet and his family, as well as the other horrific crimes that Vine details. American the beautiful? You wouldn't think so after reading this book.

This is history that is still not common knowledge among the masses, making it all the more sad and tragic. This is a book that needs to be read by more people. And discussed by more people. The incident involving Dr. Sweet and his family happened nearly 90 years ago, but its ramifications are still relevant today. America has come a long way since the days of the KKK and events such as the one detailed in this book ... or has it?
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on October 28, 2013
Chances are you know Clarence Darrow for his defense of evolution in the Scopes Monkey Trial and/or of the killers Leopold and Loeb. His work in the 1925 murder trial of Ossian Sweet and his brothers has received less historical fanfare but is just as important in the context of history - and just as relevant today.

Does a man, black or white, have the right to defend the home he owns with deadly force? With the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman case and "stand your ground" on the lips of news pundits everywhere, it's an issue that has still not been completely resolved. This book offers a concise depiction of race relations, Jim Crow laws, and lynching in the 1920's North, culminating in a murder trial seemingly ripped from today's headlines. The fact that it seems so topical in 2013 reminds us that we have a long way to go.
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on October 10, 2004
A rose by any other name

ONE MAN'S CASTLE is an all too familiar story about victimization simply because of the color of someone's skin. Phyllis Vines

reconstructs a suspenseful detective story that heralds a collision between a Black physician and the Ku Klux Klan.

Dr. Ossian Sweet journeyed to Paris, France to study medicine under the supervision of Madame Curie. At that stage of his life, Sweet has reached all of his goals; attended the right schools, received a medical degree that would guarantee him financial and social prominence, and had married well. But when he and his wife arrive at the American hospital in Paris to deliver their first child, they are turned away. And seemingly for the first time Sweet realizes he is not protected from the opprobrium of racism. Racism is not new to Sweet, he is a son of the south, but his previous racial encounters were impersonal to him. However, after hearing the words of the American Ambassador, that 'the hospital is operating in the spirit of America', things change for Sweet. This time racism carries a personal tag, as if Jim Crow had searched for him and targeted his sense of masculinity.

The Sweets return to the states and acquire lodging in a fairly affluent section of Detroit, Michigan. But this is an America still wallowing in the bowels of racial disparity. The Sweets become victims of racial slurs, physical attacks on their home, and blatant indifference from the local police authorities. Amid the volatile confrontations between the racial groups someone is killed and all of the occupants of Sweet's home are jailed.

This extensively researched and tartly presented tragedy of Dr. Ossian Sweet's efforts to reside in a home he purchased in an all-white Detroitneighborhood introduces a colorful cast of characters and a wide range of social history. Because Detroit's population described their city as one of the most metropolitan cities in the world, the tension between Blacks and whites was supposedly manageable, but the events in 1925 changed that perception. The NAACP was compelled to hire famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, which led to one of the most incendiary courtroom dramas in the history of the United States. This is a remarkable book about our obsession with race. It reads like a thriller, except this story is true.

Reviewed by aNN

of The RAWSISTAZ Reviewers
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on June 24, 2004
A great read; I can't wait for the movie!
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on October 29, 2004
In the latest issue of the journal, 'Nature,' there is an account of a fossilized "human" on an island near Java. Only three feet tall with a grapefruit-sized brain which is 2/3 smaller than a human brain leads me to conclude it was a chimpanzee instead of an adult dwarf, as they claim. The description of the teeth which survived for 18,000 years in a limestone cave surrounded by coffee farms confirm this.

It took research teams forty years to find this skeleton (actually not complete as the hands and feet are missing). It was uncovered thirteen months ago by teams from Australia and Indonesia, and the article leads one to believe this discovery will 'rewrite evolution,' according to a spokesman for London's Natural History Museum. From this group of bones, the paleontologists could determine there was hardly any chin or browline. Now, we know that our ancestors had prominent brows. If, in future excavations, they find claws, we'll know it was a monkey as other parts signify ape-like features.

This is either a bogus report of they more than likely found a baby orangutan. This article claims we had a "real-life Middle Earth" as in 'Lord of The Rings' in which the dragons were simply giant lizards and elephants as small as ponies. Who are they putting on? I need more proof before I will accept this as truth.

This book is about Clarence Darrow's next case after he defended Thomas Scopes in Dayton, TN, called the Monkey Trial. After suffering through the indignity of a Tennessee non-air conditioned courtroom in our TN withering heat and humidity, and losing the case by a bare margin (though he did lose), a nominal fine which humiliated those opposed to his theatrics in the courtroom drama. Since he was defending the young teacher who chose to instruct his students about the scientific evolution, he became an icon for justice for the 'under dog.'

I don't agree that the outcome was a triumph or "transcended race in the name of justice"; he erroneously felt that courts and the law could tame injustice. His childhood hero had been John Brown, the abolitionist who led the attack at Harper's Ferry, West VA. He thrived on taking controversial cases, and advocated for justice and the rights of the downtrodden.

Though he was noted for his eloquence, humor and satire (all put to good use in his defense tactics in the Scopes trial), he couldn't distinguish between two dark complexioned Jewish attorneys and "colored people" and lacked tact with remarks to Walter White, the assistant secretary of the N. Y. City NAACP. Being from the Mid-West (born in Iowa), he knew nothing about racism, made blunders due to his illlusory misconceptions and myths based on race.

In 1925, there were twelve million blacks living in Detroit and one Dr. Sweet put them all in jeopardy by exerting his "right" to live in a white neighborhood. According to this author, a white former teacher at the University of Michigan, Phyllis Vine, this decade (1920s) was the only time in American history our nation came close to an outright race war. I disagree.

She talks about Jim Crow, lynchings by the KKK, kangaroo courts, desecration of the American Dream, and so-called tolerance of racial violence in the U. S. A death incurred during the commotion of Dr. Sweet's 'thumbing his nose' at American society; as a result, he and ten others were on trial in Detroit for murder.

Darrow was old (69 yrs.) by then and tired, thoroughly exhausted by the trial in Tennessee (prefacing this case), but was enticed into taking this case for the notoriety. He and I have one thing in common, being against the death penalty. He had the ability to influence juries to decide on prison sentences instead of the electric chair. He'd just lost the TN Monkey case but, perhaps as a consequence of his courtroom tactics had caused the death of William Jennings Bryan, his opponent.

When finally persuaded by the NAACP to take this case, he'd decided on 'self-defense' as the cause of the shooting to death one of the rioters. He and his TN co-defense counsel, an attorney from New York, obtained the services of other white lawyers seeking national press coverage. The whole case was on the premise, the "old principle of a man's right to protect his home as his castle" and the failure to prove a "conspiracy to commit murder."

The Epilogue was the most interesting part of this book, to see how this case brought prestige to some of the principals (the judge was appointed Governor of the Phillippines, a U. S. attorney General, and on the United States Supreme Court by FDR) and disgrace to others (Dr. Sweet ended up as a suicide after failures on all sides of his personal life after this incident).

James Johnson, executive secretary of the N.Y. NAACP, came to Fisk University (where my son Zachary taught English for five years) to teach and died in a car/train collision. While in TN, he wrote five books which were published, incuding an auto-biography, ALONG THIS WAY.

Darrow's co-counsel went on to defend Sacco and Vanzetti, who were executed for murder, based on questionable evidence, and assisted in the famous Scottsboro trial of nine black Southern men who raped two women on a train.

Detroit was declared the 'wickedest city in U.S.' and that house on Garland Avenue where this murder was perpetrated is now on the National Register of Historic Places. That should please Jack Neely. With his aid, we have so many old dilapidated downtown structures with those markers, and I am wondering what the signifigance of all this nonsense will entail. Just because something ununusal or notorious happened at that spot does not make it 'historic.' Tell that to the preservationists. We need progress in this town and this nation, not living in the past.
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