Sarah Elizabeth Ray was 24 when she boarded the Bob-Lo boat on June 21, 1945. Raised with her twelve siblings in the mostly black community of Wauhatchie, Tennessee, Ray had moved to Detroit with her husband to find a better life. And she did find it.
In 1945, she graduated from secretarial school, becoming 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 to Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park, which was part of the Province of Ontario.
To date, the park sparks fond memories for many adults who spent summers riding the ferry to the island to enjoy a picnic or engage in other recreational activities. But from its opening in 1898 until its closing in 1993, the history of Bob-Lo wasn’t always pleasant. On the day Ray boarded the boat on June 21, she had paid the 85 percent fare along with scores of her classmates and their teacher.
While settled on the top deck, the ticket taker began making his rounds. And this was what ensued, according to Ray.
“He took the ticket from my hand and then looked at my face. Two men in white coats came up to me and told me to leave the boat. They said Negroes were not allowed on the boat. My teacher said, ‘She’ll go quietly.’ That really added insult to injury. I got off the boat. They gave me back my money. I spent months with these girls and they turned their backs on me. I was so mad I threw the 85 cents at the boat.”
Being the only black woman in the group, Ray had apparently violated the ferry company’s rule against “Zoot-suiters, the rowdyish, the rough, the boisterous…and colored.”
This rule was not unusual throughout the first half of the 20th Century as almost everything from schools to residential areas to public parks was segregated. African Americans later began protesting these whites-only admission policies in these public places and facilities.
To avoid being labeled as strict segregationists, the Bob-Lo Excursion Company, which used two boats for the transportation of its passengers, the SS Ste. Claire and the SS Columbia, initiated a “Colored Days” policy that allowed African Americans entry on low-revenue Mondays.
On that fateful day Ray stood on the Woodward Avenue pier and watched the Bob-Lo boat leave her behind to make the trip to the Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park, she took a decision that would change history, years before the famous Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case or Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama.
According to historical accounts, Ray’s next step was to immediately contact the Detroit branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which filed suit, arguing that the Bob-Lo Excursion Company’s policy of barring black people from the boat violated Michigan law. Michigan, as early as 1885, had a statute barring racial discrimination in public accommodations.
The case was first brought to Recorder’s Court, a state court in Detroit. Management of Bob-Lo argued that, as a private company, it had the right to deny passage to whomever it chose. But the state disagreed, and the court fined Bob-Lo $25, according to a report by The Progressive.
The report said that even though the fine was nominal, managers of Bob-Lo were concerned about the effect the verdict would have on their operations so they appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which upheld the findings of the lower court.
Detroit NAACP President the Reverend R. L. Bradley Jr. was quoted to have said after the verdict, “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.”
But Bob-Lo was clearly not ready to accept the court’s decision as it headed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it claimed that the company was engaged in “foreign commerce,” adding that it wasn’t bound by the laws of Michigan because the island was actually in Canada.
The case became known as Bob-Lo Excursion Company v. Michigan. The National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union joined the NAACP in the case with the head of the legal team being legal giant Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the Supreme Court’s first African-American Justice.
Marshall, in part, argued that the company was subject to Michigan law as the only way onto the island was by buying a round-trip ticket in Detroit. On February 2, 1948, the Supreme Court affirmed the rulings of the lower courts, ruling that the Bob-Lo Excursion Company “will be required in operating its ships as ‘public conveyances’ to accept as passengers persons of the negro race.”
“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.
Ray, a young and courageous woman, had found justice at last, and in five years, the Bob-Lo court ruling would pave way for the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case in which “the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.”
Ray, before her death in 2006, continued to contribute to the civil rights movement. In 1967, after a riot in Detroit that killed scores of people, Ray and her second husband, Rafael Haskell, bought a building and converted it to a community center. Naming it Action House, the building was to help forge positive interracial relations.
Haskell was later killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1999 and Ray grappled with financial woes and arthritis before her death on August 10, 2006, in her mid-80s.
Her fight for everyone’s right to ride public transportation free of discrimination was summarized by 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.”