Sarah Elizabeth Ray and the SS Columbia: The Unknown Story of One Woman's Fight for Racial Freedom

Posted on: March 3rd, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation
The above historic image of the SS Columbia dates to the interwar period and was taken by the noted marine photographer Bill Taylor. (Bill Taylor and the Marine Historical Society of Detroit)

The above historic image of the SS Columbia dates to the interwar period and was taken by the noted marine photographer Bill Taylor. (Bill Taylor and the Marine Historical Society of Detroit)

Sarah Elizabeth Ray was born in 1921 to a family of 13 children in an all-black community in Wauhatchie, TN. Ray’s upbringing was a relatively isolated one and spared from much of the sting of Jim Crow. She moved to Detroit in her 20’s with her first husband to find a better life and enrolled in a federally-funded secretarial program, the only African-American among forty girls. Upon graduating in June 1945, the girls decided to celebrate by taking the short boat ride to Boblo Island.

Bois Blanc Island (commonly known as Boblo, or Bob-Lo Island) was considered the region’s Coney Island. Once a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping to Canada, the island is located on the Detroit River just over the Canadian border. Between 1898 up until its closing in 1993, the entire island was privately owned by Michigan’s Bob-Lo Excursion Company as an amusement park and serviced by two now-historic vessels: the SS Ste. Clair and the SS Columbia.*

On the morning of June 21, 1945, Ray and her classmates boarded the Columbia to be ferried to Bob-Lo Amusement Park. One of the girls collected the class money and bought all the tickets at once. In a Feb 28, 2006 article in the Detroit Free Press, Ray recalled as she walked onto the boat that the man taking tickets noticed her brown hand and looked up, but said nothing. All were welcome at Boblo, except for disorderly people and colored people. After taking their seats on the top deck, two men walked toward them and asked the white girls next to Sarah whether they knew her. Her teacher was then told she could not continue on because she was black. Initially Ray refused to leave the ship, but after one of the men instructed a group of waiters to throw her off, she left. But Sarah hadn’t given up the fight. When she got to shore, she threw her 85 cent refund back at the boat and called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Ray had the presence of mind to collect the names of the men who had approached her and through the NAACP filed a criminal complaint against the company. Both the local and Michigan State courts found for Ms. Ray. But the Bob-Lo Excursion Company appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming they were doing business internationally, not in Michigan. At the time, Ontario had no human rights laws, but Michigan had an early civil rights law that forbade discrimination in public places. Finally, on February 2, 1948 in Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. People of the State of Michigan,  the Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s civil rights legislation in favor of Sarah Elizabeth Ray, stating that the only way to the island was via Detroit’s dock, and although the island was in Canada, it was owned and operated as an adjunct of Detroit and therefore bound by Michigan laws. In affirming the ruling of the lower courts, the Supreme Court had signaled its willingness to protect the civil rights of African-Americans, and helped pave the way for the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education.

More than a decade before Rosa Parks also famously defied Jim Crow segregation laws, Sarah Elizabeth Ray* began her own struggle against racial discrimination. Both women refused to surrender to the prevalent racism that limited their freedom and demonstrated personal and inspiring courage in propelling the Civil Rights Movement forward.

For more information, visit www.sscolumbia.org.

-- Fiona Lawless

Fiona Lawless is Program Manager for Save America's Treasures at National Trust for Historic Preservation. Learn more about how the National Trust for Historic Preservation is celebrating the accomplishments of women in preservation by visiting our new Women's History Month website.

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* The National Historic Landmark Steamer SS Columbia is today America’s oldest surviving passenger excursion steamer. In the pre-automotive age, excursion steamers such as the Columbia served as a primary means of access to greenery, sunlight and water for urban populations in industrializing America. Launched in 1902, the Columbia was the grandest and most technologically innovative product of its time. Over an 89 year working career she carried millions of passengers from Detroit to the amusement park and picnic grounds of Bob-Lo Island in the Detroit River. Passengers rode the Columbia each summer season, reveling within its elaborate steamboat Palace décor and dancing during special moonlight cruises. The Columbia’s run of 89 years of service on one route is unrivaled in American maritime history. Its role in the significant Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. People of the State of Michigan, 333 U.S. 28 underscores the value of the NHL SS Columbia as a teaching tool regarding social justice and the need to fight for what is right. Today, the SS Columbia Project owns the Columbia and is working to restore the ship and bring it to New York, to once again transport passengers -- of ALL colors-- up the Hudson River.

** After her own struggle and the Detroit riots of 1967, Sarah Elizabeth Ray and her husband Rafael Haskell founded Action House, a community center for the young and poor that helped neighbors forge positive interracial relationships for the next 25 years.

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