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CLAE Alumnus Wins National Book Award

Kevin Boyle ’82

Not only do “we want great things for you.” Great things happen to CLAE alumni.

On November 17, Kevin Boyle ’82, won the National Book Award for the best book of 2004 in the nonfiction category. His winning book, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, was published by Henry Holt and Company. It tells the moving story of an African American family’s fight to live in a white Detroit neighborhood in the 1920s. This was the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan in the city. When Ossian Sweet, a black physician, attempted to move from the Black Bottom in east Detroit to a working-class area filled with white residents in 1925, his new neighbors encircled the house and attempted to drive him and his family out. The Sweets fired on the mob in self-defense; two people were hit by bullets and one died. Dr. Sweet and ten other people in the household were then charged with murder. The resulting trial, one of the most famous of the 1920s, became a stage for a cast of famous characters. Frank Murphy, the presiding judge, later became governor of Michigan and attorney general of the U.S. Clarence Darrow, the defense attorney, was fresh from his captivating performance in the Scopes Monkey Trial. Sweet’s defense was paid for by James Weldon Johnson and the NAACP, who sought to use the case to challenge residential segregation in the North. It proved to be the origins of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Boyle recounts the story in impeccable detail, using it to explore questions of race relations in 1920s America.

This is the fourth book by Boyle, who lives with his wife and two daughters in Bexley, Ohio, and is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio State University. A respected historian of the American labor movement, he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and later taught at the University of Massachusetts. He is a Detroit native and attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools in the city before enrolling at what was then the University of Detroit. He still has fond memories of his years at UD and many faculty, including John Staudenmaier, S.J., and Sarah Stever of UDM’s History Department, remember him as a very good undergraduate student with a great deal of promise. Boyle returned to UDM to give a public lecture about the Sweet case two years ago.

Boyle received the award, and the accompanying $10,000 cash prize, at the National Book Awards ceremony in New York. He is scheduled to appear on C-Span’s Book Notes and at a number of leading bookstores nationwide in the months ahead.

Roy E. Finkenbine
History Department