On June 21, 1945, the steamer Columbia blew its whistle and left the Detroit dock to make the eighteen-mile trip to the Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park. All the passengers who had purchased round-trip tickets were comfortably aboard—all, that is, but one.
Twenty-four-year-old Sarah Elizabeth Ray stood watching on the Woodward Avenue pier as the massive five-decked vessel, stars and stripes waving in the breeze, steamed out of port and down the Detroit River. She had been with a group of adult students celebrating their completion of a secretarial course. She had paid her eighty-five cents, along with a dozen classmates and their teacher, but was forced off the boat.
The only black woman in the group, Ray was in violation of the ferry company’s rule excluding “Zoot-suiters, the rowdyish, the rough, the boisterous . . . and colored.” Within three years, Bob-Lo Excursion Company’s refusal to accept Ray’s ticket would land it before the United States Supreme Court, in an important but mostly forgotten case involving the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the legendary Thurgood Marshall.
The Bob-Lo Excursion Company’s rule against black passengers on its two steamboats and the island park they serviced was not unusual. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, segregation in America’s amusement parks—as well as all other public accommodations—was pandemic.
While most northern and border states had passed civil rights legislation, recreational segregation remained a national reality. This separate and unequal standard ultimately gave rise to resistance and civil disobedience that, while little known or acknowledged today, predated such landmark events as the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955).
Increasingly, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, African Americans refused to be excluded from neighborhood swimming pools, amusement parks, carnivals, and roller-skating rinks—all the activities that, in the words of one historian, “made urban life in mid-twentieth-century America pleasurable.” They defied the rules at restricted recreation facilities, often in the face of violence from irate white citizens and state and local police.
Sadly, legislators and law enforcement officials would point to the so-called recreation riots as justification for leaving segregation in place.
In an effort to sidestep desegregation, some amusement parks allowed entry to African Americans on “off days” or at the opposite ends of the season, when the weather was least favorable. Some restricted black use of their facilities to one day a year.
Michigan’s Bob-Lo Excursion Company initiated a “Colored Days” policy—usually on otherwise low-revenue Mondays—denying African Americans entry to either the park or its two ferries at all other times. Bob-Lo’s amusement park police were specifically instructed to screen all prospective passengers, to determine if any African Americans were attempting to sneak aboard.
These decisions to exclude were arbitrary, final—and heartless. In his autobiography, former Detroit mayor Coleman Young recalled being on an eighth-grade class trip in the early 1930s: “As we were loading the boat to take us to Bob-Lo, one of the guides jerked the cap off my head to check out my hair, and officiously informed me that black children were not permitted at the park. . . . I honestly wasn’t prepared for that. And I was never quite the same person again.”
For more than a century, Bob-Lo Island had belonged to Ontario Province. Ironically, after Canada abolished slavery in 1793, the island became a rest stop for escaped slaves traveling the Underground Railroad. First opened commercially in the late nineteenth century as a resort island, Bob-Lo—a corruption of the original name, Bois Blanc—was eventually purchased by an American ferry company, and developed into one of America’s largest and most successful amusement parks. It ran two large steam-powered ferries that brought day trippers from Detroit to the island.
In 1935, the company formally asserted its policy of racial homogeneity in its annual report, saying this “helps our patrons to handle the negro problem.” Bob-Lo’s owners and directors were determined to maintain a strict separation of the races, thereby keeping the park’s white customers from seeking their entertainment elsewhere.
By the early 1940s, a segregated Detroit, in which African Americans had long been relegated to a downtown ghetto commonly known as Black Bottom, was undergoing a massive industrial boom, with dire racial ramifications. America was in the midst of a world war, and within just a few years more than a half-million people—both blacks and whites, mostly poor and southern—had migrated to jobs in the city’s defense plants. The ghetto was straining at the seams, its population threatening to overflow into white-only neighborhoods.
In the summer of 1943, the racial powder keg that had for years been threatening Detroit finally exploded. Although there were several underlying causes, including festering resentment over housing shortages and police abuse, the match that lit the fuse was the use of public recreational space.
Belle Isle was a 985-acre island in the Detroit River that, like Bob-Lo, offered respite and recreation, albeit on a more modest scale. Both whites and African Americans used the island for sports and picnicking, and the two groups often squabbled. As more and more recently arrived blacks made use of Belle, angry Detroit whites came to call it “Nigger Island.”
On June 20, 1943, a brutally hot day, thousands of African Americans crossed the bridge to Belle Isle, seeking to escape the heat and enjoy a Sunday in the park. Almost immediately, violence broke out. Sailors from the local armory attacked a group of African Americans, and a black woman was badly beaten by white women screaming, “We don’t want any niggers on Belle Isle!”
By the next day, the situation had escalated into a riot, and the violence poured into the streets. There was widespread looting and burning, with both sides taking part. The city police were ineffectual. Finally, the mayor appealed to President Roosevelt, who diverted 6,000 troops from war service and sent them to Detroit to quell the riot.
By the time order was restored, more than 600 people had been injured, and nine whites and twenty-five blacks lay dead. Some had been the victims of gunshots; many were stabbed or bludgeoned to death. The killings were intensely personal.
In the aftermath, the mayor’s office formed an interracial committee to analyze the causes of the riot and prevent a recurrence. It recommended, among other things, the peaceful common use of recreational space. While it did not have authority over private concerns such as Bob-Lo, the committee in 1945 issued a statement noting that “Negroes are excluded from most commercial recreational establishments.”
That same year—seventy-one years ago, and exactly two years to the day since Detroit was set afire—Sarah Elizabeth Ray boarded the Columbia. There is no indication she had ever been a troublemaker, nor was she deliberately defying the rules now.
Raised with her twelve siblings in the black section of Wauhatchie, Tennessee, Ray had moved to Detroit with her husband to find work. “I ran away with a young man who had relatives in Detroit,” she recalled more than sixty years later. “I thought I’d find absolute freedom here. But day after day, year after year, I discovered it wasn’t so.”
Ray found employment with the Detroit Ordinance Department and enrolled in a department-sponsored secretarial program. Her class of forty young women—all white except Ray—graduated in late June and celebrated with a trip to Bob-Lo Park.
As Ray later recalled, the ticket taker “saw my brown hand and looked up at me, but he didn’t say anything.” Shortly after she and her classmates and teacher had settled themselves on the top deck, the firm’s assistant manager and a steward approached the group and ordered Ray off the boat.
“At first I refused,” she said, “but then I saw that they were going to throw me off. My teacher said, ‘She’ll go quietly.’ It was embarrassing.” So Ray disembarked, under escort by the two functionaries. Once on the dock, she wrote down their names, and refused a refund of the eighty-five-cent fare.
Ray immediately contacted the Detroit branch of the NAACP, which brought charges against the Bob-Lo Excursion Company for violating state civil-rights laws. As early as 1885, Michigan had a statute, amended in 1937, barring racial discrimination in public accommodations.
The case first went to the Recorder’s Court, a state court that dealt only with cases in Detroit. Bob-Lo management claimed that, as a private company, it had the right to deny passage to whomever it chose. The state disagreed. During the trial, the prosecutor voiced his outrage at the ferry company’s racist policy: “The discrimination by the Bob-Lo Excursion Company has been the most vicious type imaginable since in many cases it was directed toward children who were simply attempting to enjoy an excursion with their schoolmates or other friends.”
The court found the ferry company in violation of Michigan law, which guaranteed “full and equal accommodations” on public conveyances. According to the December 1, 1945, Chicago Defender, the “irate defendant” asked the judge, “What in God’s world does the civil-rights statute seek?” to which the judge replied, “It seeks to see that all God’s children have equal rights in Michigan.” The court fined Bob-Lo $25.
Despite the nominal fine, the company was concerned about the implication of the verdict. In that year alone, its two “Bob-Lo boats” had carried some 500,000 passengers—nearly all of them white—to and from the island. A legal mandate granting blacks equal access would compromise its business model.
Bob-Lo appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court—which upheld the findings of the lower court. After this second verdict, Detroit NAACP President the Reverend R. L. Bradley Jr. stated, “It is hoped that the Bob-Lo Excursion Company will accept this decision and attempt to comply with it in the full spirit of the law.” To do otherwise, he said, “would be a great disservice to American principles of justice and fair play.”
But the Bob-Lo Excursion Company had no intention of accepting the court’s decision. It sought redress before the United States Supreme Court, this time by claiming the company was engaged in “foreign commerce.” Although the ferry company was an American enterprise and owned the two steamers, the park, and most of the island itself, it maintained that the island was part of the Province of Ontario.
Therefore, it argued, Michigan law didn’t apply, since only Congress was empowered to regulate foreign commerce. Ray, observing this, was amazed at the company’s persistence, even though it “kept losing every step of the way.”
Steamer S.S. Columbia's sister ship, S.S. Ste. Claire, docked at Detroit's Woodward Avenue pier.
Bob-Lo could hardly have chosen a less propitious time in the Supreme Court’s history to present its case. In his second term as President, Franklin Roosevelt had been able to pick five justices, becoming the first President since Lincoln to place a majority on the court.
The case was known as Bob-Lo Excursion Company v. Michigan. Joining the NAACP as amici curiae—“friends of the court”—were the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union. The head of the legal team was the NAACP’s chief legal counsel and strategist, the extraordinary jurist—and future associate justice of the Supreme Court—Thurgood Marshall.
For years, Marshall had been winning decisions against segregation, and in another five years he would successfully argue Brown vs. Board of Education, the case that struck down the Supreme Court’s hoary “separate-but-equal” ruling. In his career, Marshall would argue an impressive thirty-two Supreme Court cases—and win twenty-nine of them. There was no one better to represent Ray’s case.
In a memo to an associate, Marshall chided Bob-Lo’s foreign commerce argument, noting that the company was incorporated in Michigan and sold only round-trip tickets to the island. He recognized it was trying to retain a policy of commercial segregation in direct defiance of state law. In a letter he wrote, which appeared in several newspapers during the trial, Marshall opined: “[W]hile the Court should strike down statutes which require segregation[,] it should uphold the statutes which prevent segregation.”
On February 2, 1948, the Supreme Court affirmed the rulings of the lower courts and found against Bob-Lo. “This is a case of a discrimination against a Negro by a carrier’s complete denial of passage to her because of her race,” wrote Justice William O. Douglas. He called it “unthinkable” that the court would strike down a state law requiring carriers to transport all persons, regardless of their race.
The court’s Bob-Lo decision became a significant paving stone on the road to Brown v. Board of Education. And it all began with a courageous young woman who was unwilling to let an injustice go unchallenged.
In the words of chronicler Victoria W. Wolcott, “Sarah Elizabeth Ray asserted her power as a consumer and an activist alongside the better-known male leaders of radical pacifism. As a result, the bucolic Bois Blanc Island was now accessible to a postwar generation of urban blacks.”
Ray’s contribution to the civil rights movement did not end with the resolution of Bob-Lo Excursion Company v. Michigan.
In 1967, Detroit erupted in a riot that lasted several days and dwarfed the violence of 1943, leaving scores dead, hundreds injured, and thousands arrested. Stunned, Sarah Elizabeth Ray took action. She and her second husband, Rafael Haskell, purchased a building, which they converted to a community center. They named it Action House, and its express purpose was to “forge positive interracial relations.”
Haskell died in a hit-and-run accident in 1999. His wife—financially challenged and badly crippled with arthritis—strove to run Action House solely on his Social Security checks until the money ran out. She looked back on this and her life as a whole in an interview with the Detroit Free Press that ran on February 28, 2006.
“It seems,” she mused at a still-defiant eighty-five, “I’ve paid a big price. But I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in.”
Sarah Elizabeth Ray died a few months later, on August 10, 2006. In the Free Press interview, the reporter referred to Ray as “the Rosa Parks of the Bob-Lo boat,” adding that she “still exudes tremendous self-possession.” Yet Ray herself saw her victory over segregation sixty years earlier as bittersweet: “To this day, I’ve never been on the Bob-Lo boat. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Sidebar: The Story Behind the Story
It is often difficult to determine why some historical events rise to national prominence while others fade into oblivion. It was only recently, while helping in the restoration of the S.S. Columbia—the very steamship from which Sarah Elizabeth Ray was ejected—that I came across her story. It had been written of briefly, mostly in a handful of stories in the black newspapers of the time, but begged for more in-depth research and coverage.
A few books on civil rights legislation made mention of the case. I found the U.S. Supreme Court records online. The Library of Congress provided me with the NAACP’s files on the case, including correspondence to and from Thurgood Marshall and others. Microfilm files gave access to period news articles on the case. Sadly, I found only one photograph of Ray herself, and it is a newspaper image too grainy to give an accurate representation.
Yet Sarah Elizabeth Ray’s story deserves to live on. Through it, we see a continuum stretching from the violence of the Detroit race riots in the 1940s, and again in the 1960s, to the racial strife rampant in our nation’s cities and towns today. How relevant, and inspiring, is the case of this gutsy young woman who displayed the courage to challenge inequity—and to win.
– Ron Soodalter
Ron Soodalter is an award-winning author, folklorist, and historian who has authored two books and is featured in five others.
From the June issue of the magazine. The web version of this article corrects an error that appears in the print version regarding the career of Thurgood Marshall.