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).
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