L ately I have found myself immersed in the world of 1920s Detroit. But it's not all flappers and jazz music that I usually associated with the time period.
On a recent trip to the Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library, I snagged a copy of "Arc of Justice," which is the Great Michigan Read book for 2011. The Great Michigan Read is organized by the Michigan Humanities Council as a free initiative to encourage Michigan residents to read and participate in book discussions.
"Arc of Justice," written by Detroit native Kevin Boyle (no relation to me, as far as I know), tells the story of Detroit during the early 1900s as tensions erupted with the migration of immigrants, and particularly black southerners, to the city and the automobile industry jobs it provided.
One of those who moved to Detroit was Ossian Sweet, a black doctor who at first found himself living in the African American ghetto of Black Bottom. Having established a successful medical practice and married, he wanted to provide a better home for his growing family, and that meant moving out of the ghetto and into a white neighborhood.
Due to the rampant racism, influence of the Ku Klux Klan, white fears over everything from falling housing prices to the "dangerous" influence of black men on their daughters, moving out of the ghetto wasn't as easy as finding friends to help haul your furniture.
Around the time the Sweets were moving, other black families attempting to move into white neighborhoods were met with riots and mobs, which is exactly what happened to the Sweets.
The second night in their new home, a mob formed outside and began throwing rocks at the house. Someone from the house fired a gun from the second story window into the crowd, killing one of the members of the mob. The book follows the events of that night through the murder trial that followed. I'm currently mid-way through the book, so I can't tell you what happens.
"Arc of Justice" explains not just the circumstances surrounding the Sweets - what brought Ossian from Florida to Detroit, the social circle they moved in - but also the larger events surrounding the country - the spread of racism and segregation following the Civil War.
History is much more interesting when you go from looking at events like a timeline to looking at them as the result of the hundred different circumstances that happened leading up to them.
But at the same time that the book is a great read and the story of Ossian Sweet is interesting, reading through the descriptions of the the hatred that drove regular people to stand outside their neighbor's home and literally throw stones, the descriptions of migrant families so desperate for housing they would pay astronomical rents to live in something that would barely qualify as a shack - it's unsettling.
Today racism is seen as unacceptable, but is it just that public opinion that separates the whites in 1920s Detroit from people today? Those people that formed the mobs outside of black families' homes in Detroit, did they regret their actions later? If I had been in those neighborhoods, what would I have done?
How much of the damage done could have been avoided if people had just stayed inside their homes on those nights instead of joining the crowd, letting fear and anger take over?
As I continue to read "Arc of Justice," I'm torn between thinking that society has changed, that no one I know would be involved in something that hate-filled, and reading news stories about others who are feared or tormented because of how they look.
With the Internet, it's easier to limit people to their nationality or their religion or their sexual identity. But people should be viewed as people first, and when that is the norm, society will have truly changed.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.