’ll never forget the day, more than a decade ago, when I knocked on the door of the Detroit woman who fought for everyone’s right to ride public transportation free of discrimination. I’m not talking about Rosa Parks. I’m talking about Sarah Elizabeth Ray, who took her fight to ride the Bob-Lo boat all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court years before Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama.
Born in 1921 in Wauhatchie, Tennessee, Ray was one of 13 children raised in the mostly black community. After getting married in her 20s, she and her new husband lost no time escaping to Detroit for a better way of life. She found it. In 1945, she graduated from secretarial school – the only African-American in her class of 40. To celebrate, Ray and her classmates decided to take a ride on the Bob-Lo boat.
For generations of Detroiters, Bob-Lo Island brings up fond memories of summer voyages on the Detroit River to the Coney Island-esque resort on the boat (one of two vessels, the SS Ste. Clair and the SS Columbia). But, from its opening in 1898 until its closing in 1993, the history of Bob-Lo wasn’t always so idyllic. Back when Ray bought her ticket, the amusement park was off limits to “zoot-suiters, the rowdyish, the rough, the boisterous … and colored.” Before Ray could set sail with her classmates on her graduation day, stewards escorted her off the vessel and refunded her 85-cent fare (which she reportedly threw at the boat).
Embarrassed and outraged, the 24-year-old took her complaint to the NAACP. Since 1885, Michigan has had a civil right statute barring racial discrimination in public accommodations. That was part of what made Detroit so attractive to black Southerners who came to the Motor City to escape Jim Crow.
The NAACP filed suit, arguing that the Bob-Lo Excursion Co.’s policy of barring blacks from the boat violated Michigan law. Court after court agreed, but the company kept appealing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. From the company’s point of view, it wasn’t a “public accommodation,” it was a private company. And anyway, it wasn’t bound by the laws of Michigan because the island was actually in Canada.
Arguing the case before the U.S. Supreme Court was Thurgood Marshall, the legal giant who would later become the first black justice on the high court. In part, he argued that because the only way onto the island was by buying a round-trip ticket in Detroit, the enterprise was subject to Michigan law. The Supreme Court agreed, ruling in 1948 that the Bob-Lo Excursion Co. “will be required in operating its ships as ‘public conveyances’ to accept as passengers persons of the negro race.”
That was an impressive victory for a young woman from the hills of Tennessee. Legal scholars say that the decision in Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. Michigan signaled the Supreme Court’s willingness to protect the civil rights of African-Americans, making the case a precursor to the landmark decision in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, banning “separate but equal” public schools.
I’m not sure how Detroit let Ray become one history’s forgotten women. When I tracked her down, she was in her mid-80s, living alone in poverty in an unheated eastside bungalow, rail thin and racked by arthritis. I learned that she had soon divorced the man who had brought her to Detroit. She’d later remarried Rafael Haskell, and together they were noted community activists. The couple bought and ran the Action House on Detroit’s east side to help foster positive relationships between blacks and whites. She never married again after Haskell was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1999. Ray died in 2006, only a few months after I met her.
To this day, I regret that I didn’t snap her picture in that era before smartphones. But in my mind’s eye, I see her standing on the front porch of her house as if on the deck of a boat, defiantly casting her hard-earned fare over the balcony, troubling the waters of change.