The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson
By Wil Haygood
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 Wil Haygood
All rights reserved.
say goodbye to Walker Smith Jr.
THE CITY OF DETROIT was founded by French slaveholders. They suffered a political rebuke in 1837 when the Michigan legislature opted to join the United States. State officeholders then rose up and outlawed the so-called peculiar institution of slavery.
In the coming years, escaped slaves would rush into the city. Many were delivered by daring operatives of the Underground Railroad. Northern-based organizations, many on job recruiting missions, also sent representatives into the Deep South — preachers prominent among them — to urge the disenfranchised to come North. Negro newspapers displayed flashy advertisements — "The Flight out of Egypt" one slogan trumpeted — telling of jobs in factories and steel plants. Pullman porters slyly handed out leaflets on train platforms and inside rail stations, with curious passengers folding the material into their purses and wallets. A representative of a Detroit organization, preparing to go South on a recruiting mission, certainly felt the emotion in a letter from a semiliterate man who wished to escape Georgia: "I am Sick of the South and always has been, but the opertunity has just come our way so by God healp and you I will soon be out of the South. I was just reading in the morning Beaumont Enterprise Paper where thay Burn one of the Race to Stake for God sack please help to get me out of the South."
In time, the flow of migration into Detroit seemed unstoppable. Germans were joined by Irish, who were joined by the French. Few, however, were as starved for social acceptance as the Negro. Between 1910 and 1930, the number of Negroes in Detroit swelled from 5,000 to 120,000. The population jump gave the impression that the metropolis was a kind of mecca. In addition to its progressive mind-set, there was a constant motion and energy about 1920s Detroit. And Henry Ford's mechanical machines played a huge role in the bustle.
Auto magnate Ford, who said his ideas often came to him while rocking in a rocking chair, had unveiled his Model T back in 1908. He constantly pondered ways to speed up production. He knew he had hit upon something with the idea of an assembly line: Workers placed at one end of the plant would pass an assembled chassis up the line; axles would be added, then wheels, then the body. In 1913 the process could be completed in twelve hours, thirty minutes. Ford wasn't satisfied, though; the following year the time was down to ninety-six minutes. It was taxing work, but the jobs were coveted. The carmaker — himself of Irish immigrant stock — offered a forty-hour workweek at $5 a day. It was a handsome wage. And Negroes were hired in appreciable numbers at the Ford plant. Mindful of the social dynamics, Ford even employed a couple of Negro personnel officers. The legend of Henry Ford quickly grew; it could be heard in a 1920s ditty: "I'm goin' to Detroit, get myself a good job,/Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob./I'm goin' to get me a job, up there in Mr. Ford's place,/Stop these eatless days from starin' me in the face."
Walker Smith Sr. was a farmer in rural Georgia. He toiled raising peanuts, corn, and of course cotton. He was small in stature — five feet seven — and possessed a powerful work ethic. He imagined, however, that the $10 a week he was averaging would keep him and his family swallowed in poverty forever. In 1920 relatives in Detroit boasted of "good salaries" there, coaxing him to join the great exodus and come North. Smith announced to his family — wife, Leila, daughters, Marie and Evelyn — that he would venture there alone first, and if the city was to his liking, he'd send for them. There was immediate concern among family members: They'd be alone; the Southern rural darkness could be full of foreboding to a lone woman and her daughters. Smith tried to stifle his family's concerns. He was determined to go.
Once in Detroit, it took Walker Smith little time to find employment. He found a job in construction; he began bringing home $60 a week — six times his income as a farmer! The Georgia immigrant could only smile at his good fortune. The clothing stores in downtown Detroit dazzled Smith; he purchased new clothing — tweeds, two-tone shoes, straw hats. Because of Prohibition, the city was dry. But Walker Smith knew just where to go to get himself a drink — the darkened speakeasies in the heavily populated Negro area of the city, along Hastings Street, an area known, coarsely, as Black Bottom, though its social milieu in fact included various ethnic groups in addition to numberless Negroes. (Rumrunners also slipped into the city from Canada and sold their home brew from glass jars. The rum-running was abetted by illegal gambling and prostitution, giving the city, come nightfall, a rather dangerous vibe. A feared police unit known as the Black Hand Squad patrolled the area.) Confronted with the teeming nights, Walker Smith rubbed his hands together and proceeded to shuck off his country upbringing: A construction worker by day, maybe, but by night a wiry dandy who had already made enough to purchase himself one of Henry Ford's Model T's. Walker Smith didn't miss the Georgia fields at all.
Months after his arrival in Detroit, he had saved enough money to send for his family to join him. Leila Smith and her daughters boarded a train, and as it chugged forward — their own family's flight out of Egypt — they bid rural Georgia farewell. Leila Smith was happy.
Upon their arrival in Detroit, Leila reconnected with husband Walker. He was delighted to see his family together again. He ushered them into a modest home on McComb Avenue, and Leila's daughters began helping around the house as much as they could. Walker hoped for a son.
In the ensuing weeks, Leila and her daughters — like so many newcomers — were simply stunned by the pace of Detroit: booming construction cranes; Model T's swerving around corners; police officers with pinched faces wielding billy clubs upon the homeless. Reinhold Niebuhr — whose writings would later become influential reading for the seminary student Martin Luther King Jr. — was a young minister living in Detroit at the time. Niebuhr also found the city bewildering: "A city which is built around a productive process ... is really a kind of hell," he felt. "Thousands in this town are really living in torment while the rest of us eat, drink, and make merry. What a civilization!"
Walker Smith, Jr. — born May 3, 1921 — would spend his youngest years in this Northern environment. He was proudly named Walker, after his father. They called him Junior. (Robinson's birthplace would come, in later years, to be claimed by both the citizens of Michigan and Georgia, although Sugar Ray himself preferred Detroit.) The infant child barely saw his father, however, as Walker Sr. was now working two jobs, his second on a sewer line. After her son's birth Leila went back to work as a maid at the city's Statler Hotel. The young child was left, for the most part, in the care of his two sisters, Marie and Evelyn. The sisters spoiled the boy by rocking him, giving him sweets, fussing over him in the cold weather. Little Walker, however, would retain vivid impressions of his father from sweet and slow Sunday afternoons: The father would get dressed up, stand in front of the mirror, cackle with confidence in Junior's direction. "He was a good dresser," the son would recall of his father, and his description might have summed up the evolution of his own future sartorial bent. "Conservative, but stylish. He liked dark suits — blues, grays, and browns. And I can remember that in the summer he wore two-tone shoes and a white Panama hat." The father's Model T entranced little Walker. He furtively explored the machine, once playing the part of stowaway: "One time I hid in the rumble seat of his Ford. When I hopped out, he had to drive me home. He didn't like that because he had to use more gas. And that meant he was wasting money."
Few if any Southern migrant families could foresee what was about to happen inside the borders of Detroit in the mid-1920s. The combustion of Henry Ford's automobiles was one thing; human combustion quite another. The crowding of migrants — and foreign immigrants — meant a housing squeeze. There was an unstoppable flow of families seeking opportunities, seen hustling daily from the trains down at Michigan's Central Terminal — and it started to cause painful ruptures.
Many residents of the Black Bottom area suffered from high rents, inadequate medical care, and brutish police tactics. "Black because we lived there, Bottom because that's where we were at," Walker Sr.'s only son would later lament about the Black Bottom district. And what slowly began to creep into the city's soul was Henry Ford's xenophobia.
In the summer of 1921, Ford — whose genius seemed strictly business-oriented — had approximately five hundred thousand copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion printed for local reading pleasure. It was a thinly veiled treatise attacking Jews, full of anti-Semitic vitriol. Bigots were the only ones who got pleasure from reading it. Ford's narrow racial views on social matters — at variance from the needs of his labor-hungry auto plants — were hardly unexpected, since they echoed much of the national discourse. President Woodrow Wilson had brought a nasty segregationist attitude with him to the White House: Negro civil servants lost hundreds of jobs with little or no explanation; the color line in social venues in the nation's capital was tightened even more. Actions — or inaction — from the top tiers of the government had a way of filtering downward. There were newspaper accounts of racial hatred across the country.
In May of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a Negro youth, Dick Rowland, went into a downtown building to use the bathroom. A white seventeen-year-old girl claimed he attacked her. Rowland denied guilt but was quickly arrested and taken to jail. A group of local blacks armed themselves to help the sheriff protect Rowland from a possible lynching. Enraged, local whites went on a rampage, galloping through the Greenwood section of the city — known as "the Negro Wall Street of America" — firing weapons at random and setting fire to buildings. Some of the fleeing blacks were gunned down from behind. A. C. Jackson was a physician who bravely stayed to give medical care to the wounded that first night. On the second day, with his home surrounded by a sneering mob, Jackson stepped outside, the smell of ash still in the air. "Here I am," the frightened man said. "Take me." Two bullets then ripped into his chest, killing him. Before it was over, at least one hundred blacks had been killed (some accounts cite three times that number), and over a thousand homes and businesses torched. An investigation eventually exonerated shoeshine man Rowland of all charges. Not a single white person was ever arrested. Eighteen months later came another horror down South: Believing a Negro had raped a white woman in Sumner, Florida, white residents sought vengeance in nearby Rosewood, an all-black town. At least seventeen blacks were murdered. Those who saved themselves had fled with a few meager possessions into nearby woods.
In Detroit, little Walker Smith and his family soon found themselves living in a cauldron of social unease. On Christmas Eve of 1923 the Ku Klux Klan held a rally around Detroit's City Hall. They sang carols holding the hands of their children while flames from a burning cross licked at the night air. They warned of more rallies and marches.
It is little wonder that dinnertime conversation at the Smiths often reflected concerns about the city's dangers: Leila fretted about Black Bottom and the crime; she worried about the strangers who sidled up to her two lovely daughters, whispering sweet nothings; she lamented that Walker Sr. didn't spend more time with their little son. And she feared the presence of the Klan. Walker Sr., in his Panama hat, was not worrying about the social order: He was intent on playing the role of Detroit hepcat, not Georgia rube.
It was finally the actions of a Black Bottom neighbor that would justify the fears of Leila Smith and many other local blacks — fears that left Leila painfully missing quiet afternoons in the countryside she had left behind.
Ossian Sweet was one of the few Negro doctors living and working in Detroit's Black Bottom district. Born in Florida, he had obtained his medical degree from Howard University in the nation's capital. He settled in Detroit in 1921. He and his wife, Gladys, had a daughter, Iva, and with his practice doing well, they wished to purchase a home away from Black Bottom, someplace in the city that was safe and might herald their middle- class stature. They bought a home on Garland Street, sold to them by a white couple. The neighborhood was all white. The couple who sold the Sweets the house told them — disingenuously — that while they would be integrating the neighborhood, they would not face any danger in doing so. But even before the Sweets moved in, posters appeared around the neighborhood advertising their arrival, and calling for protests. Threats against the Negro family were uttered at community meetings.
On move-in day — September 8, 1925 — the good doctor surrounded himself with protection, calling on his brother Henry and a group of Negro friends. Inside the house, they were well armed with guns. The first night passed with relative quiet, in spite of curious onlookers outside the windows. Before nightfall on the second day, however, more than three hundred whites had gathered near the house, all of them watched by police. Hurled stones and chunks of coal crashed onto the porch, shattering windows, causing the police to bolt into action. Ossian Sweet was determined to protect his family and property. Firing began from inside the house. With bullets whizzing, folk ducked and scattered. Voices howled. Two men — white — were hit. They were quickly taken to a nearby hospital. Eric Houghberg would survive his wound, but Leon Breiner would not. Eleven Negroes were arrested, including Ossian's wife, Gladys. Within days the national press picked up the story of a Negro doctor bent on defending his family — and of a man who lay dead. The Klan threatened reprisals.
James Weldon Johnson, the poet and literary figure, was executive secretary of the NAACP. The case of the Sweets touched him, and he decided to throw the weight of the civil rights organization behind the accused. Negro lawyers would be fine as part of the legal team, but Johnson feared they wouldn't be able to maneuver around the politics of the case, given the entrenched racism in the legal structure of Detroit. He wanted a white lawyer — an outsider — on the team, and someone with a national reputation. After much wooing, Clarence Darrow, famous from the Scopes monkey trial and renowned for championing the oppressed, joined the defense team just two weeks before the trial's beginning. The Sweet brothers and their codefendants — save for his wife, Gladys, who was released on bail — remained behind bars. Ossian was defiant. "I am willing to stay indefinitely in the cell and be punished," he said. "I feel sure by the demonstration made by my people that they have confidence in me as a law-abiding citizen. I denounce the theory of Ku Kluxism and uphold the theory of manhood with a wife and tiny baby to protect."
Negro newspapers jumped into the fray from their editorial pages. "The heroic defense of their homes exhibited by those brave and fearless Detroiters," came a salvo from a Negro publication in Philadelphia, "makes every Negro in this country their debtor." When white liberal publications chimed in, defending Ossian Sweet's right to protect his family, the NAACP knew it had backing beyond the Negro hallways of the nation. "The law in America is presumably broad enough to cover the Negro as well as the white man," the New York World opined — if a touch dreamily.
Clarence Darrow and his legal team went to work. "I realized that defending [N]egros, even in the [N]orth, was no boy's job," Darrow had said. As the trial got under way, the aging, white-haired lawyer showed dramatic flourishes in the courtroom, clipping away at eyewitness testimony offered by whites.
It all ended in a mistrial, which meant the Sweets and their cohorts might still go to prison, as there would be a second trial. And for that second trial, Darrow enlisted the services of Thomas Chawke, a shrewd local attorney who had made a reputation defending gangsters. In facing the jury, Chawke talked about the city, its reputation, its politics, and its future. But the crowd awaited the big man in suspenders with the dramatic face: Darrow. He also talked of community, of safety, of man's right to defend hearth and home. But he took the jurors into the very source of Ossian Sweet's American ambitions; into the very heart of the pursuit of freedom: "Prejudices have burned men at the stake, broken them on the rack, torn every joint apart, destroyed people by the million," he thundered. "Men have done this on account of some terrible prejudice which even now is reaching out to undermine this republic of ours and to destroy the freedom that has been the most cherished part of our institutions. These witnesses honestly believe that it is their duty to keep colored people out." He talked of slavery, of blood, of the long nights endured by black Americans. Summing up his argument to the jury, he said: "I ask you, gentlemen, on behalf of this defendant, on behalf of these helpless ones who turn to you, and more than that — on behalf of this great state, and this great city which must face this problem, and face it fairly — I ask you in the name of progress and the human race, to return a verdict of not guilty in this case!" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sweet Thunder by Wil Haygood. Copyright © 2009 Wil Haygood. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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