While many of Detroit’s transplants during the first part of the century were from the South, Vollington Bristol came all the way from the British Indies.
One of his first jobs in Detroit was as the lead bellhop at the Fairfax Hotel, where he met another bellhop by the name of Ossian Sweet. At the time they were both young men trying to find their way, but it was Bristol who had big plans. He was already saving to open his funeral parlor.
If the name Ossian Sweet rings a bell, it’s because his was one of the biggest cases of housing discrimination in Detroit, if not the United States. He was not the first businessman in Detroit to attempt to break the color barrier though. One of those that came before him was his friend Vollington Bristol, now a prominent businessman.
Bristol and his wife Agnes, a mortician and community figure herself, owned a home on American Avenue, within the territory of the Tireman Avenue Improvement Association. They did not live in the home, as it was too far from their business in Black Bottom, but rented it to white tenants. After the homes was abused by the white tenants, Bristol decided he would instead rent to black tenants. Each time he found suitable tenants, the threats were enough to scare them away, until finally he became fed up.
On July 4, 1925, Bristol made a declaration to the twenty-five white neighbors that blocked the entrance to his home. After they warned him that they would not allow him to rent to colored families, he replied that rather than continue renting the property, he would move in himself.
The Association had already stopped another prominent black businessman, Dr. Alexander Turner, from moving into his home on Spokane. As a friend of Turner, Bristol must have been prepared for the worst, and was thoughtful enough to ask for police protection as he moved into the house on July 6, but by the next day there was a mob forming outside of his home. Police were still present from the day before, so initially the mob kept their distance, until a woman across the street yelled,
“If you call yourselves men and are afraid to move those niggers out, we women will move them, you cowards!”
That’s when the stones flew. Neighbors asked the police to step aside, but they stood firm, and when the crowd continued to assault them, they began to fire warning shots into the air. After these shots, the crowd opened fire. Thankfully no one was hit, and the police held their ground long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Nearly 200 officers from around the city pushed the mob back all the way to Tireman, jailed nineteen white men, and afterwards came upon eight heavily armed blacks making their way from Black Bottom. After hearing of the mob, they were coming to provide Bristol with a necessary defence, which would have almost surely caused a race riot in the streets.
A friend of both Turner and Bristol, Ossian Sweet must have been terrified before moving into his home on Garland. Though in doing so, he changed the stakes in housing segregation in Detroit. For more information on these events, please see Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice.
Vollington Bristol was also one of the funeral directors that originally founded, invested in, and was on the original Board of Directors of Detroit Memorial Park.