Sarah Elizabeth Ray was the unsung Detroiter who fought for Black people to ride the Boblo Boats. The Freep is bringing her story to viewers living at a modern tipping point.
DETROIT, MI — Now through Friday, you can watch and learn about the unsung Detroiter who fought for Black people’s right to ride the city’s famous Boblo boats, courtesy of the Detroit Free Press, Freep Film Festival, and the filmmakers who came to them with her story.
They’re presenting an opportunity to watch a special short film about Detroiter Sarah Elizabeth Ray, who fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to establish Black people’s legal right to ride the Boblo boats and enjoy the island amusement park.
Who Was Sarah Elizabeth Ray?
Sailing to Boblo Island Amusement Park was an integral part of experiencing summer in Detroit for decades, up to the closure of the boats and park in the early ’90s. And visitors of all races were able to enjoy those attractions for all those years thanks to Sarah Elizabeth Ray.
“In 1945, Ray, a secretary, had completed a training in the city ordinance department and joined her class for their graduation on the S.S. Columbia, one of two Boblo boats,” the Freep’s Chanel Stitt wrote. “She was the only Black person in her class. Minutes after boarding, a man with the Bob-Lo Excursion Co. told her to exit the boat. Black people weren’t allowed.
“Ray left the boat and reported the incident to the NAACP, and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was on the case. The Michigan Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination in public places. After the boat company lost several appeals, the case landed at the U.S. Supreme Court, where Ray was victorious.”
The short documentary “Sarah Elizabeth Ray: Detroit’s Other Rosa Parks” tells her story, which writer-director Aaron Schillinger said has largely been forgotten amongst happy memories of Boblo Island.
“I’m not surprised actually that no one has heard this story,” Schillinger told the Detroit Free Press. “A lot of people have all these fun, happy memories of Boblo, and I think that is the message that a lot of people have just been sitting with for decades. But then this history has kind of been forgotten because people held onto the happy parts.”
The nearly five-minute-long documentary is part of a larger documentary called “Boblo Boats: A Tale of Two Sisters,” which is still in progress.
“The ship itself is old and important, but it’s the memories that people have that give it so much value,” Schillinger told the Freep. “I started digging into the history and I am reading this book on this history of Boblo Island, and there’s like a page and a half about the civil rights activist who got kicked off the boat and went on to change history — and her name was Sarah Elizabeth Ray.”
Telling Stories at the Tipping Points
The filmmakers said to the Freep that wanted to release the short film now because of the relevance of Ray’s story in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The filmmakers initially approached the Freep Film Festival — we’ve worked in the past with a couple of members of the team — and pretty immediately we deemed it a great fit,” Steve Byrne, director of Freep Film Festival, told The ’Gander. “The festival’s focus is documentaries, and our particular sweet spot is documentaries with strong local connections or important local stories. This hit all those checkboxes.”
Desiree Cooper, the historian that guides viewers through Ray’s story, told the Freep that when the murder of George Floyd sparked protests across the nation, the country had had enough.
“It shows where one person’s effort accumulates with all the other efforts that came before it, and there’s a tipping point,” Cooper also said in conversation with the Free Press. “We’re living that tipping point in this exact moment. That’s what happened to Sarah that day on the boat.”
Freep Film Festival wanted to amplify Ray’s story in metro Detroit, both as an important chapter of the area’s own history and as meaningful community context around current uprisings against racial injustice.
“Our sense is that Sarah Elizabeth Ray’s history is not particularly well-known in metro Detroit, a place that is certainly known to indulge in some Boblo nostalgia,” Byrne said. “So the festival’s role here is amplifying an interesting, and somewhat unsung, tale that has important things to say about our community. And of course, the festival appreciates the opportunity to be attached to strong filmmaking, which this definitely is.
“In the grandest sense, stories are a key ingredient in holding communities together. If we don’t understand each other, don’t hold at least some common ground on where we’ve come from — and where we’re headed — there will be fissures. The tumult and tension of 2020 thus far is certainly evidence of that. It’s important that we keep providing context, delivering facts, sharing stories that matter.”
Byrne added that they were impressed with the team’s approach to telling Ray’s story, especially because directly related archival materials were limited.
“We’re definitely looking forward to seeing the impending feature-length Boblo documentary that Sarah Elizabeth Ray’s story is drawn from,” he said.
How to Watch, Discuss, and Learn More
Watch: The short documentary about the Detroit woman who battled Boblo Island segregation policies will be available to stream on this page at the Freep through Friday, July 31.
Discuss: Freep Film Festival will be hosting a live conversation with the film’s writer-director Aaron Schillinger, historian Desiree Cooper, and animator Bec Sloane at 7 p.m. Wednesday on the Free Press’ Facebook page and Freep Film Festival’s YouTube.
More information: The film grew out of an in-progress feature-length documentary, “Boblo Boats: A Tale of Two Sisters.” More information on the documentary at bobloboatsfilm.com or facebook.com/bobloboatsdoc.