The Report of the Mayor’s Committee on Race Relations, which was based on research supervised by the Detroit Bureau of Governmental Research.
This report was a path-breaking response to changes that were occurring in the City of Detroit at the time.
The continued growth of the auto industry in the 1920s fueled expansion of the City of Detroit, which grew in population from a million in 1921 to 1.4 million by 1928. Among those coming to the economically vibrant Detroit after World War I were African Americans, whose numbers rose from 10,000 in 1918 to 80,000 in 1925.
In an era of residential segregation, this meant that the black population had two choices: try to fit into increasingly crowded ghettos, such as Black Bottom (so named by the French settlers for its rich, black soil) or move into all-white areas, where they were unwelcome. They did some of each.
In reaction to the influx of immigrants, which, in addition to blacks, included large numbers of Catholics and Jews, the Ku Klux saw its numbers rise from about 3,000 in 1915 to an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 by 1925.
The impetus for this report was a series of “race difficulties” in the summer and fall of 1925. These “difficulties” came to a head with the Ossian Sweet case [see box on inside of back cover]. The Sweet case created a sensation that underscored the racial tensions in the city. In response, Mayor Smith appointed a Mayor’s Committee on Race Relations. The committee was biracial and composed of a dozen leading citizens, from business, professions, and religion.
The young Protestant pastor of the Bethel Evangelical Church, Reinhold Niebuhr [see box on inside of back cover], was selected by Smith (who was Catholic) to chair the committee. To provide a factual basis for its recommendations, the committee commissioned a survey of the conditions of the black population in Detroit. The Community Fund agreed to provide $10,000 to finance the survey on one condition—that it be conducted under the general supervision of the Detroit Bureau of Governmental Research.
In August 1926, the resulting survey, The Negro in Detroit, was massive, covering a wide range of issues including business, housing, health, recreation, education, crime, and community organization. According to the Bureau, it gave “a fair and more adequate picture of race conditions in the city than has been available hitherto.”
Following completion of the survey, the committee met weekly to produce a summary of the findings and recommendations, published by the Detroit Bureau as the Report of the Mayor’s Committee on Race Relations.
This report, while mildly patronizing by the standards of 90 years later, consistently recognizes the role of poverty, racism, and lack of education in the lives of the Motor City’s black population. And some of the conclusions, if phrased in 21st century language, would have a decidedly contemporary ring.
The Sweet Case
In September 1925, Dr. Ossian Sweet, a Howard University medical graduate moved his family into a house in an all-white neighborhood near Black Bottom. Almost immediately, they came under attack by several hundred whites. In the ensuing altercation, one of Sweet’s neighbors was killed by gunfire from the house where Sweet had assembled a group of friends and relatives to defend his home. The eleven people in the house were arrested and charged with murder.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People immediately contacted Clarence Darrow, who agreed to take the case, which was heard during November before Recorders Court Judge Frank Murphy. Darrow made the case that the people in the house were engaging in self-defense against a racially motivated mob. Ultimately, the defendants were tried separately and the jury returned a verdict of not guilty in the case of the first defendant. None of the other defendants was tried.