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Abandoned home of lesser-known civil rights hero named one of US' "Most Endangered Historic Sites"

The Sarah Elizabeth Ray House
The Sarah E. Ray Project
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The house is small, run down, boarded up, surrounded by tall grass. A blue tarp covers the roof. The wood exterior is weathered gray from the elements, with just a few paint chips remaining.

This week, this house at 9308 Woodlawn, near Detroit’s City Airport, was named one of the “11 Most Endangered Historic Sites” in the U.S. by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The reason? It was the home of Sarah Elizabeth Ray – a Black woman who supporters of the preservation project say should be as well known as Rosa Parks.

See a 3D virtual tour of the house here

A newspaper clipping from 1948 featuring a photograph of Ray.
Credit Courtesy of The Sarah E. Ray Project
A newspaper clipping from 1948 featuring a photograph of Ray. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor, saying she was discriminated against.

Ray was a new secretarial school graduate in 1945, when she and her classmates boarded the S.S. Columbia for a celebration cruise on the Detroit River. Once on board, Ray was ordered off the popular passenger steamship that made trips to Bob-Lo Island.

She filed a complaint with the Detroit NAACP chapter, and in 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed her right to be on the boat. The case helped set the stage for future civil rights progress, and integrated an island amusement park that was beloved by many.

The SS Columbia in 1940.
Credit William Taylor / Courtesy of The Sarah E. Ray Project
The SS Columbia in 1940. Ray was ordered off the popular passenger steamship in 1945.

Later, Ray married a Jewish labor activist named Rafael Haskell, and changed her name to Lizz Haskell. The couple started the community empowerment organization Action House on the lot next door after the 1967 rebellion in Detroit.

Sarah E. Ray, also known as Lizz Haskell, in Detroit in 1975.
Credit Photograph by Detroit News Photographer Porter / Courtesy of The Sarah E. Ray Project
Sarah E. Ray, also known as Lizz Haskell, in Detroit in 1975.

“I just knew her as Ms. Lizz,” said William R. Walton, who helped out at Action House from time to time. “I remember that she cared. She cared about the kids.”

Walton, a retired SMART bus driver, lives kitty-corner from the house and owns several lots in the neighborhood where he grows flowers and vegetables.

“What I hope is they’re going to refurbish [the Sarah Ray house] and make it a historical site. Make it something that the kids can look up as far as someone in their own neighborhood did this.”

The endangered designation doesn’t afford protection or money for preservation, but backers of the project hope it will draw attention and resources.

“You wouldn’t know it from looking, but inside this house, this crumbling structure, is actually ... hundreds of documents of Sarah Elizabeth Ray’s life. There’s pictures, there’s letters with her handwriting on them,” said Aaron Schillinger, who made a short film about Ray and co-founded the Sarah Elizabeth Ray Project. “That's one of the reasons why this house is now on the list of the 11 Most Endangered. Because these objects need saving. I’d like to see them belong in a museum.”

A number of old documents are still inside the ruined house.
Credit Courtesy of The Sarah E. Ray Project
A number of old documents are still inside the ruined house.

Action House offered cold lunches and cultural enrichment to children in the neighborhood, and connected families with social services. Ray also brought the city’s mobile swimming pool and mobile library into the neighborhood, distributed Thanksgiving turkeys, and helped mothers advance themselves, according to writer and project co-founder Desiree Cooper.

Watch a teaser for the short film Aaron Schillinger made about Ray:

On the day I visited the house, a car pulled up, driver-side wheels to the curb, with Antonio Hinton behind the wheel.

“The door was right there,” Hinton recalled, pointing at a spot in the now-vacant lot next to Ray’s home. “We used to line up at this door to get cold lunches in the ‘70s. Oh, I remember going to Metropolitan Beach with the Action House. I remember going to Bob-Lo with the Action House. I remember going to Tiger Stadium in the Action House!”

I ask Hinton what he knew about Ray’s legacy as a civil rights activist.

“Nobody never did know at our age what Lizz really stood for,” Hinton said, adding that he found out about Ray’s activism about nine months ago, when a friend shared an article with him. I ask how he thinks back on his time at Action House now, with the knowledge that it was a civil rights pioneer who handed out lunches and took him on field trips.

“I got mad at me! Lizz did all that for us? When I read about it… it put chills through my spine.”

Images of the interior of the Sarah E. Ray house taken in fall 2020.
Credit Courtesy of The Sarah E. Ray Project
Images of the interior of the Sarah E. Ray house taken in fall 2020.