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Interview with Kevin Boyle, Winner of the National Book Award

Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Ohio State University, recently won the National Book Award (non-fiction) for Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age. The book tells the story of Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African-American physician who moved his family to an all-white neighborhood in 1920's Detroit. When a white mob gathered to force Sweet back to the ghetto, Sweet gathered friends and acquaintances for protection. The confrontation ended in a murder indictment when a white man was killed. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took charge and ensured that famed attorney Clarence Darrow defended Sweet in a sensational trial that ended in Sweet's acquittal.

HNN asked Mr. Boyle to discuss his book and the award. The interview was conducted by email.

What prompted you to write about Ossian Sweet’s story now, at this point in time, and in your career?

Civil rights history had slowly been pushing its way to the forefront of my work for years before I started Arc of Justice. The movement had been an important part of my first book, and I'd followed that with several articles on race and class in post-World War II Detroit. Civil rights had also become a larger part of my teaching. I think it was 1996 or 1997 when Patricia Sullivan and Waldo Martin first invited me to participate in an NEH Summer Seminar on teaching civil rights, which was just a fabulous experience. And in 1997-98 I taught a civil rights course at University College Dublin, where I was on a Fulbright. The students were so bright and so engaged -- and I just loved it. The decision to work on the Sweet case came out of those experiences. I saw it as a way to talk about issues that really mattered to me and that I found absolutely compelling.

Do you feel that the fact that you are a native Detroiter affected you interest in Ossian Sweet? Did your personal life affect your choice of topic and insights?

Being from Detroit made all the difference. I wish I had a dramatic story of stumbling across the case while burrowing through moldering archives. But the truth is that a lot of Detroiters know of the case; it's mentioned in the newspapers every so often; it's told in local histories. The key was realizing that outside of Detroit it was virtually unknown.

Being from Detroit was important in another way as well. I grew up in a city profoundly divided by race. I saw those divisions play out in my neighborhood, in local schools -- everywhere. Once you've seen how deep the racial divide is, it's hard to let go of the issue. Detroit leaves its mark.

How well known in academia and to the public was Ossian Sweet’s story before your book was released and brought it to national attention again?

The Sweets' story appears in various books. Sidney Fine's magisterial biography of Frank Murphy devotes a chapter to the trial. It's discussed in Philip Dray's amazing At the Hands of Persons Unknown, Kenneth Jenken's biography of Walter White, and Robert Schneider's recent book on the NAACP. And as I said, folks in Detroit know it. When I'd tell people back home what I was working on, they'd give me a look that said, "Not again." But the case didn't have a book-length study until this year. And most Americans had never heard of it.

How did you research Arc of Justice? What kind of sources where used to construct this story so vividly?

I dug as deeply as I could into the primary sources. Some of the sources were pretty obvious. The NAACP's records were fabulous, as they are for so many topics. There's a trial transcript available at both the Burton Library in Detroit and the Bentley Library in Ann Arbor. Clarence Darrow's papers are at the Library of Congress. The newspapers provide the trial plenty of coverage. And there are some terrific small collections in Michigan, including the diary of a woman who attended the trial and became an object of Darrow's advances.

The real fun was pushing beyond those records, recreating the world of the Sweets. I spent a lot of time working through census records, insurance maps, and city directories. I still remember how exciting it was to find the record left by Ossian's great-grandmother when she opened her account with the Freedman's Bank just a few years after emancipation. I poked through official records that weren't easily available: the land records for the homes on the Sweets' block, for instance; the incorporation records for the improvement association that tried to drive the Sweets out; the death certificates for the Sweets' children. Then there were the moments of pure luck. The family who live in the Sweets' home invited me to visit, to walk around the house, to see the view of the street as Ossian would have seen it. A marvelously gifted actor who teaches theater at the University of Detroit Mercy gave me what I think is the only existing copy of the interrogation transcript made by the police on the night of the incident. I had two wonderful guides who took me all around the African-American neighborhood in Bartow, Dr. Sweet's home town in Florida, and introduced me to people who knew Ossian, including his youngest brother, Sherman Sweet.

Reading this list, I realize that there isn't anything extraordinary about the sources themselves. To make the story vivid just required reading the sources differently than I would have had I been writing another way. If the story comes alive, it's because of the detail, the tiny bits of information that the sources contain but are easy to overlook. Let me give you an example. At one point I describe where Sweet first lived when he moved to Detroit. I wanted to make the point that the area wasn't completely black but instead had a number of immigrants living on it. I could have just said that. Instead I went down the block, giving the neighbors' names: Joseph Saprenza, the Catalanos, Frank Gidzie, Sam Monecato. The names themselves don't advance the story. But they give the reader a sense of intimacy, a connection to real people.

How do you feel your recounting of Ossian Sweet’s story differs from Phyllis Vine's One Man's Castle, which was also released this past year?

I haven't read Ms. Vine's book. I'm sure it's a very good piece of work.

You told Barnes and Noble: "Here was someone writing history the way I wanted it to be written. More importantly, here was a book that captured the enormous complexity and profound tragedy of modern American race relations. It’s taken years, but with Arc of Justice I feel as if I have confronted the ghosts of Detroit in the way Lukas taught me." What was so inspiring in your opinion in the method J. Anthony Lukas chose to write Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families? Why did you choose to write Arc of Justice in a similar style?

Lukas did so many things in that book, it's hard to know where to start. He gave his readers real, complex people. He showed how those people were caught up in -- and how they shaped -- extraordinary events. He fashioned riveting scenes. He avoided easy answers, instead embracing moral ambiguity. And by doing those things, he wrote the finest book available on the racial tensions that beset American cities in the 1960s and 1970s. It was an absolutely stunning achievement. I'm not the sort of person who stays up late into the night reading, but Common Ground made me lose a lot of sleep.

Besides Anthony Lukas, who else do you find has influenced your writing of history? Who were your mentors? Did they have any impact on your writing of your book?

I did my doctoral work under the direction of Sidney Fine at the University of Michigan. It's no exaggeration to say that he taught me how to be an historian. He stressed immersing yourself in the research, and he certainly made me a better, more precise writer. I also learned a great deal from the eight years I spent working in the history department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The department had an ethos that its faculty should want to write for the public, and a number of my colleagues -- Steve Nissenbaum, Kathy Peiss, Gerry McFarland, Dick Minear, Carl Nightingale, and others -- did that so well. I've tried to follow their lead.

As to other influences, I live in awe of David Levering Lewis, both for the brilliance of his work and the beauty of his prose. Taylor Branch's epic story-telling is a great inspiration. The analytical insights of David Roediger, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Tom Sugrue shaped a great deal of the book.

And I absolutely love the masterpieces of micro-history: Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre; Carlo Ginsberg's The Cheese and the Worms; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale. Getting that intimate sense of people's lives -- feeling for a moment what it meant to live in another time and place -- that's the history I want to tell, although I'll never do it as well as those people have done it.

Do you think that writing Arc of Justice in a rather poetic style where one feels that they are reading a book of historical fiction, although it is accurate history is a more effective style than the traditional academic approach to writing history?

I'm really honored when someone says the book has a poetic style. But I don't think there's one way to write history. We've all read absolutely brilliant histories that aren't done as stories. There's room for many approaches, many styles, many experiments.

You mentioned in you acceptance speech for the National Book Award that there were many titles to the book before you decided on Arc of Justice. What were some of them? What prompted you to choose Arc of Justice, which comes from a quote often used by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.? ("The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.")

I'm embarrassed to tell you some of them, they were so bad. It started out as "The People v. Sweet," a truly boring idea. For a long time it was "Sweet Justice," but my editor decided, rightly, that it was too cutesy a title. I originally used "Arc of Justice" for the title of a job talk, of all things, and I wanted it to make precisely the opposite point that Martin Luther King made. I ended the talk, as I ended the acceptance speech, by saying that the Sweet story shows that the arc of the moral universe is very, very long, but it does not always bend toward justice. When we decided to use the phrase for the tile, I worried that the point might be lost. So I put the quote at the opening of the book, then balanced it with a very dark Langston Hughes poem: "That justice is a blind godess / Is a thing to which we blacks are wise. / Her bandage hides two festering sores / That once perhaps were eyes."

Why did you choose to begin with the actual shooting that took place at the Garland Avenue house, and then go back to lay the foundation and recount Sweet’s background and the situation in Detroit at the time, and then continue on with Sweet’s trial?

That decision came straight from the classroom. When I give lectures in big survey classes, I like to begin with a dramatic story, because it grabs the students' attention and sets the scene for the analysis to follow. Doing the same thing with the book just seemed obvious to me.

In you opinion how much did Ossian Sweet’s trial bring the plight and treatment of African Americans to the forefront nationally? If so was this only because a high-profile white lawyer, Clarence Darrow, took on the case? Was there any change in their conditions, if only fleetingly as a result of the trial? Did it have an effect on the later Civil Rights Movement?

That was one of the hardest questions for me to tackle. Most historians, I guess, want to be able to say that their topics made a fundamental change. I wish I could have claimed that, too. But the truth is, the Sweet case only brought attention for a short time, and then, as you say, because Clarence Darrow had such star power. But the case didn't stop the march of segregation in the urban north. In that important sense, the story is a tragedy, not a triumph.

In your talk on Arc of Justice for C-Span’s History on Book TV you mentioned that you the situation changed in the South for African Americans, but not in the North "American cities remain divided places, they remain segregated Black and White, and of all the cities in America none is more segregated than Detroit." Do you believe that segregation is at the same magnitude as it was in the 1920's, even after the Civil Rights Movement?

No, I don't. Obviously the Civil Rights Movement accomplished great things. It wiped out the most terrible of Jim Crow's abuses. And it made racism disreputable. Of course racism persists; I don't mean to suggest otherwise. But it's no longer reputable for whites to express the sort of venom that was perfectly acceptable in the dominant society earlier in the century. But the segregation of cities is persistent, and strikingly so. Every ten years the Census Bureau publishes its measurements of segregation for the major metropolitan areas. And while the indexes have shown improvement over the decades, it's incredibly slow improvement. For the Detroit metropolitan area to be truly integrated, according to the 2000 census, 84 percent of African-Americans would have to move. That's better than the 90 percent the number once was. But it's not much better. And the remarkable thing is that there's no public discussion of the issue, no outrage. Just this week the newspapers reported that race may have been behind the torching of a housing development in Maryland. Is that so different than the Sweets' story?

Did you ever imagine the reception your book would have when you initially began working on the topic?

The events of the past few months have caught me completely off guard. I've been very, very lucky.

How has winning the National Book Award changed your life and how do you feel it will change your career?

My life doesn't feel different. The kids still head off to school at 8:20 every morning. The dog still gets her walk every evening. I still haven't finished that book review I promised. But there's a very nice award sitting on the sideboard in the dining room. And I'm really grateful for that.