The Detroit Land Bank Authority is accepting proposals to reimagine the home of civil rights pioneer Sarah Elizabeth Ray. Some ideas include creating a memorial park or installation to highlight the Civil Rights movement in Detroit. (BridgeDetroit photo by Christine Ferretti)

Unopened mail, moldy books and dust-covered packages of yarn litter the floor of a home once occupied by the little known civil rights pioneer Sarah Elizabeth Ray. 

Adjacent to Ray’s former 1923 home, a patch of grass is the only remnant of the gathering space she founded that had fed hundreds of neighborhood children and gave them refuge. 

But now, the Detroit Land Bank Authority is looking for the right plan to change all of that.

On Friday, the authority began accepting proposals to rehabilitate or reimagine the home at 9308 Woodlawn not far from Detroit’s City Airport and the vacant lot where the beloved former community center stood. 

Ray gained her place in the history books as a result of her 1945 experience on the S.S. Columbia, a passenger ship that made trips to Boblo Island on the Detroit River. That June day, she bought a ticket for the trip with about a dozen secretarial school classmates. Even though Michigan had civil rights statues barring racial discrimination, the Bob-Lo Excursion Co. did not allow “colored people” to ride and forced Ray off its segregated boat because she was Black. Enraged, she filed a complaint with the Detroit Chapter of the NAACP and, in 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed her right to be on the boat. 

Although Ray’s case had paved the way for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, she was largely an unsung hero. 

In the 1960s Ray married Rafael Haskell, a white Jewish activist, and changed her name to Elizabeth “Lizz” Haskell. In 1968, the couple founded Action House, a nonprofit community center in a former neighborhood grocery store. The center emphasized racial unity and empowerment by tutoring, counseling and entertaining area youth. 

Sarah Elizabeth Ray and husband Rafael Haskell with a friend in an undated photo. (Photo provided by the Sarah E. Ray Project)

Haskell died Aug. 10, 2006, at age 88. Afterward, Action House and the home she and her late husband shared sat dormant. Action House was quietly razed a few years ago. Haskell’s home also landed on the land bank’s demolition list and nearly met the same fate. 

But while working on a documentary film about the Boblo boats, director Aaron Schillinger became fascinated with Ray’s story. He stumbled upon the work of Desiree Cooper, a former Detroit Free Press columnist, who interviewed Ray just months before her death. 

The two co-founded the Sarah E. Ray Project, an oral history endeavor to uncover her unknown life. In the process, they discovered in 2020 that Ray had changed her name to Haskell and that her vacant house was open to the elements and contained clothing, letters, paperwork and other keepsakes. They contacted the land bank and had it spared from demolition. 

The house last year was designated one of the country’s “11 Most Endangered Historic Sites” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The land bank is soliciting proposals from firms, individuals and community groups interested in reinventing the home and Action House lot in the Harper-Van Dyke neighborhood to preserve and honor Haskell’s legacy. 

Haskell’s great-nephew, Kourtney Thompson, told BridgeDetroit that the family didn’t maintain close ties, but he has memories of visiting with Haskell as a child. In her later years, Thompson said, he took care of some of her affairs. 

He said Haskell would have wanted her life’s work of “helping her own” in the neighborhood to be remembered. He envisions a project that will return the site to a community gathering place. 

“I’m sure that’s what aunt Lizz would have wanted, her example to become an inspiration to others. Action House was some place where people gathered, they came together when they couldn’t go to a theater, or some other place in the suburbs that denied them because of their skin color,” said Thompson, 55, who lives on the city’s east side. “They (youth) found a place in the community to do it and to enjoy it. She put it right in the hood and people could reach it.”

Ellie Schneider, the land bank’s program manager for marketing and strategic initiatives, said the land bank intends to sell the house for $1 to the right buyer “who preserves the history and makes it accessible.”

Potential projects, according to the land bank’s proposal request, could be an adaptive reuse that would preserve some elements of the house. The land bank’s scope of work estimates it would cost nearly $115,000 to fully repair it. 

What remains of the kitchen in Sarah Elizabeth Ray’s 1923 house on Woodlawn Street in Detroit on July 27, 2022. After the unsung civil rights hero died in 2006 her house was left vacant. (BridgeDetroit photo by Christine Ferretti)

Other possibilities include a residency program for activists and social justice-advocates, a community space to host events, a memorial park, or a site-based installation to share Ray’s story and highlight the Civil Rights movement in Detroit.

“The idea of turning a house into a museum and roping it off is less relevant now and people are expecting things to be more experiential and more accessible,” said Schneider, adding that some community groups have already expressed interest. “We tried to cast a really wide net and inspire a lot of different types of people to submit proposals.”

Questions on the RFP are due by noon Aug. 12 and submissions are due by 5 p.m. Aug. 19.

Acting ‘on her own’

Schillinger said while doing research for his documentary film on the Boblo boats he read a blurb about Ray in a history book, but he was unable to find any pictures and told her story in the film through a stop-motion animation sequence. 

Halfway through filming, he said, he discovered Cooper, who had met with and written about Ray. He interviewed Cooper then the two forged the Sarah E. Ray Project to uncover more details about Ray’s life, name change and her contributions in Detroit.

“She (Ray) was powerful and she didn’t always fit well into boxes, which is possibly why she’s not more well-known. Another theory is that she didn’t want to be,” Schillinger told BridgeDetroit. 

Schillinger and Cooper interviewed more than a dozen people in the community, relatives and former Action House members who’d known Ray as Haskell. Schillinger said the debut of the oral histories is being planned for Aug. 27 at a neighborhood block party on Woodlawn.

Some items found inside Haskell’s home were too heavily damaged to be preserved. But Sarah Carlson, the land bank’s housing and neighborhood initiatives manager, said others were salvaged, have been cataloged, and will be put in the care of Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Detroit Historical Society. 

A coat retrieved from inside Sarah Elizabeth Ray’s former home on Woodlawn Street in Detroit. The item was salvaged and cataloged as part of a collection of memorabilia to potentially be displayed at museums in Detroit. (Detroit Land Bank Authority)

“She touched a lot of younger people,” Schillinger said. “She really believed in bringing people together. She was a powerful woman, one of the first community activists in Detroit at that time who was a woman.”

Cooper said she found Haskell through advocates who argued that Ray had done so much for history and Detroit and that nobody knew she was there and her story had to be told.

“I feel like I really got a special opportunity to actually talk with her in that house,” said Cooper, recalling the February 2006 meeting with Haskell, who’d been very thin, struggled with arthritis and spent time during the interview showing Cooper pictures and offering her tea.

“I was in awe of her. She was very lucid and she told her stories and she was still very angry about what happened to her on that boat,” added Cooper. “That’s one thing that struck me is just how that emotion had not faded over time.”

Although Haskell is sometimes regarded as “Detroit’s other Rosa Parks” Cooper said her actions that day were not planned. 

“Rosa Parks was part of a movement and she was not the first to refuse to relinquish her seat (on a bus). Not taking away (from Parks), but this wasn’t part of a plan,” she said. “Sarah Ray – at the time, that was her name – she was acting completely on her own and completely out of outrage for how she was being treated.”

Cooper, who in 2016 moved from Detroit to Virginia, said so many people did not know of Haskell’s contribution to American history. But they do know how she changed their lives on their street.

“It’s almost like a Clark Kent situation. She literally was one person from what we can tell in the records for decades and then she just threw away that identity and became a different person, with a different focus, with the same level of determination,” she said. “She didn’t connect those two aspects of her life.”

‘Operating on principle’

Besides her activism work, Schillinger said Haskell was a trained modern dancer, an artist and she was a singer. 

She’d ride a bicycle down the street and sing the theme song she’d written for the Action House, he said. Within those verses, Haskell sang about “Black pride without hostility” and Black and white people “working together so we’ll all be free.”

Thompson said after his great-aunt’s death he attempted to manage her property and what was left of Action House. She had no children and efforts to secure the sites failed. He said both were ravaged by scrappers.

“Once that began, it was all downhill from there,” said Thompson, adding he knew little of what had become of the properties after that. He also was unaware of his great-aunt’s historic past until Cooper’s writings about the court case and the impact it had on society. 

Cooper said Ray’s case was publicized at the time and didn’t go completely unnoticed. 

“Forgotten is just the best word for it,” she said. “Over time, she didn’t even talk about her role with the Boblo boat. She, on some level, wanted it to pass into history and not be noted. We don’t know the reason why.”

Pieces of mail found inside Sarah Elizabeth Ray’s house on Woodlawn. The items were among those found inside the home and being preserved as part of a collection to honor her legacy. (Detroit Land Bank Authority) 

Thompson said his great-aunt was an “unsung hero” who went after Boblo “to prove a point.”

“She was that kind of person. She was operating on principle,” he said. “She was going to hold this country accountable, make this country live up to its creed.”

Haskell’s interracial marriage, which at that time was unpopular, lasted for several decades and “that speaks to her resolve,” Thompson said. 

The Supreme Court ruling in Ray’s favor forced integration. Bob-Lo Excursion Co. closed and it sold to another company that integrated.

Cooper said the Black Lives Matter movement has caused many forgotten stories to bubble up like the Tulsa Race Massacre and it has brought renewed attention to Juneteenth.

“These are things that some people knew about in some corners of the world and didn’t learn in school,” she said. “It’s cool to be able to mine those stories right in Detroit where so much has happened. I do hope that this one and others are elevated and made as public as possible.”

Haskell died at Harper Hospital in Detroit. She was cremated and Thompson said he ultimately scattered her ashes into the Detroit River off of Belle Isle. 

“I thought that was a fitting place,” he said, “given that she was a Detroiter and one thing that sticks out about her life most prominently happened on that river.” 

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