Cruising across the Detroit River to Boblo Island is a fond memory held by older generations of Detroiters. The island located about 18 miles downriver was home to an amusement park and often characterized as Detroit’s own Coney Island. However, Black folks were not always allowed to ride the famed Boblo boats.
Every Black Detroiter who spent summers on the nostalgic island giggling on the carousel or swinging in the dance hall should thank Sarah Elizabeth Ray. After being denied a seat on one of the segregated Boblo boat in 1945 because she was Black, she fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — and won. Her case paved the way for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which ruled segregation in public schools as unconstitutional.
Ray is sometimes called “Detroit’s other Rosa Parks.” Her stand against segregation on the Boblo boat Columbia happened 10 years before Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Some say she should be heralded as a civil rights icon, but her legacy has rapidly faded into obscurity. Several local filmmakers and journalists are working to change that, with the Sarah E. Ray Project — an oral history endeavor to uncover her unknown life.
WATCH: Documentary filmmaker Clayton Rye interviewed Sarah Elizabeth Ray in 2006, when she told him, “I was always a free soul.”
Journalist and author Desiree Cooper met Ray in 2006, when she interviewed her for a column in the Detroit Free Press. Ray passed away later that same year, and her house still sits, abandoned and in a state of disarray in the Harper-Van Dyke neighborhood. Earlier this year, the house was designated as one of the country’s “11 Most Endangered Historic Sites” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Cooper and documentary filmmaker Aaron Schillinger released a short, four-minute film about the Boblo boat incident last year. Now, they are interviewing residents who knew Ray, which they will publish on their interactive website. Cooper also plans to publish a collection of essays and a children’s book about Ray’s life.
Ray was only 24 years old when she tried to ride the SS Columbia to celebrate her graduation from secretarial school with her classmates. Even though Michigan had civil rights statues barring racial discrimination at the time, the Bob-Lo Excursion Co. did not allow “colored people” to ride.
Refusing to back down, she took the company to court with the help of legendary lawyer Thurgood Marshall, the future first Black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, and won. But the company appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision in 1948. Given the precedent Ray’s legal battles set for ending racial segregation in public transportation, it’s puzzling that most Detroiters have never heard of her.
Ray isn’t just unknown historically. Her personal life is also a mystery, which has made it hard for Cooper and Schillinger to find information about her. Ray changed her name to Lizz Haskell in 1962 after marrying Jewish activist Rafael Haskell. She didn’t have any children, her husband has long since passed away, and her surviving family members didn’t have a close relationship with her. After she changed her name, the Boblo incident wasn’t something she often mentioned to people, either.
“My interpretation is that she was still pissed off about the boat incident. It wasn’t really a source of pride to be kicked off because she was Black,” Cooper said.
Ray later went on to start a neighborhood community center named Action House to help create harmony amongst Black and white residents after the 1967 Detroit Rebellion. It also provided youth enrichment and recreational programs. But eastsiders who grew up going to Action House knew only Lizz Haskell. So, when Cooper and Schillinger came around asking whether people knew Sarah Elizabeth Ray, they were met with a lot of confusion.
“When (Cooper) said Sarah E. Ray started Action House, I said, ‘Hold up, Lizz Haskell founded Action House.’ Then she told me it was the same person. I had never made that connection until then,” said Angela Brown, chief operating officer of Eastside Community Network.
Eastside Community Network is a neighborhood nonprofit that’s been working in tandem with the project to reconstruct elements of Ray’s life. They’ve identified several people who went to Action House in their youth, dubbed “Children of Action House,” and are helping gather oral history interviews.
Though Wilson never went to Action House herself, she was involved in community organizing and activism when she was a teenager, which is how she met Lizz Haskell. She remembers idolizing Haskell as a fierce woman fostering change, and being struck by a vibrant mural on the side of the Action House building.
“She was a tall, strong woman. It impacted me as a 14-year old, because I saw someone in my community actually making a difference,” Wilson said. “Later in life, it was clear to me that I wanted to be doing that kind of work, and here I am working at a community organization.”
Cooper and Schillinger were also able to piece together some of Ray’s life through documents they found strewn about her house, which they call a treasure trove of history.
“We were able to find lots of pictures inside the house, like one of Lizz Haskell in 1968 at a protest in Washington, D.C., that we figured out was the Poor People’s March on Washington,” Schillinger said. “There’s lots of journals, Action House meeting minutes, and letters to her local government, where she’s asking officials to tear down blighted houses. Lizz was very politically active.”
They scanned many of those documents, which are published on the Sarah E. Ray Project website, however the future of Ray’s house is uncertain. It was on the Detroit Land Bank Authority’s (DLBA) demolition list until Cooper and Schillinger helped get it removed. Wilson said Eastside Community Network applied to buy Ray’s house from the DLBA, but was told two other people had already expressed interest. Wilson fears it will get purchased and turned into a rental property; the nonprofit wants to restore it in honor of Ray’s memory. The former Action House building was razed years ago, so Ray’s house is one of the few ties to her life that remains.
Now the search is on for an institutional partner to help extract and preserve the house’s contents. A virtual walkthrough of the house is available on the project website, along with a petition to “encourage local decision-makers to support preservation-minded stewards.”
Ray’s story and the efforts to keep it alive are just another testament to Detroit’s resilient spirit.
“Detroiters often feel forgotten about as a city, so for us to not know our own heritage is a travesty,” Cooper said. “Young people need to know their legacy in the perseverance and grit of our city. That’s a huge source of pride for Detroiters.”
If you knew Sarah Elizabeth Ray or Lizz Haskell, please call 313-437-1931 or fill out the contact form on the Sarah E. Ray Project website.