Drive-by history

Feb 15, 2006 at 12:00 am

Stewart McMillin calls it the O.J. Simpson case of the 1920s. As in the Simpson case, a black man was charged in the murder of a white person, and a renowned attorney stepped in for the defense in a nationally publicized trial.

But the circumstances of the case were different. Dr. Ossian Sweet, educated at Howard University Medical School, simply wanted to move into a burgundy brick house on Garland Street on Detroit's east side. Residents in the all-white Detroit neighborhood frothed with rage and gathered outside Sweet's house. Rocks were thrown, a window shattered, Sweet's supporters inside fired, and two white men took bullets, one fatally. Sweet was charged with first-degree murder, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hired Clarence Darrow, defender of evolution, to represent Sweet. Judge Frank Murphy called a mistrial after the jury deadlocked.

Sweet's old house, still a private residence, boasts its historical significance with a gigantic marker in the front yard. Two years ago, it was at the center of Arc of Justice, historian Kevin Boyle's award-winning book about the Sweet saga.

Stewart McMillin will explain all of this as his tour bus drives past the house Thursday, Feb. 23. Having operated his local black history tour for more than three decades, McMillin, 65, knows the backstory to every drive-by or extended stop on his tour.

Listening to McMillin speak is like listening to books on tape — at high speed. The former East Detroit High School history teacher can cram all those backstories into a single day. Nobody will step off McMillin's bus without having learned about Dr. Ossian Sweet, Orsel McGhee, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Richards, Black Bottom or who's buried at Elmwood Cemetery.

Participants may also want to bring pens and notepads. The extended stops at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Tuskegee Airmen's Museum promise to be thoroughly educational as well.

After the bus tour, participants are welcome to stroll through McMillin's "museum" in his Indian Village home. He has devoted a number of rooms to the mementos he's collected abroad. Especially remarkable are his Masai spear (good for thrusting into a lion's throat), or his matryoshka (nesting dolls) of Soviet leaders — Lenin nested inside Stalin nested inside Khrushchev nested inside Brezhnev nested inside Gorbachev.

McMillin considers himself to be a news junkie and people person. He says his mind is open to all sides of an issue — he claims to have recently watched CNN and Fox simultaneously, while visiting his mother. He tries to bring that broad-mindedness to his tour.

McMillin says his tours highlight the contributions of black people and make people aware of Detroit's history. They're also a way to address the race issue and fight prejudice.

And the tour master doesn't stop there. Though the February tour remains pretty much within the city's limits, McMillin is already planning an "Ohio and Kentucky Adventure" — a three-day exploration of Underground Railroad safe houses.

McMillin sees the local racial landscape as "remarkably better than it used to be," with fewer people openly expressing racial disdain. Whether that's a sign of evolved thinking or of racism going indoors is unknown.

McMillin warns against painting "with a broad brush" and maintains a sunny attitude, continues his tours and waves the teddy bear he keeps in his car at young passers-by.

"We should at least smile at each other and say hello," he says.


Stewart McMillin's black history tour is 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Feb. 23; $50 admission includes lunch. Advance registration is encouraged. Call 313-922-1990 or e-mail [email protected].

Joanna Galuszka is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]