For many Michiganders, summer used to mean a stop at Boblo Island. Trips to the amusement park island on the Canadian side of the Detroit River ended in the early 1990s, but folks still talk about carefree days on Boblo, or riding one of the two ferries that took you to the island: the Columbia and the Ste. Clair. Those boats are the subject of a documentary underway, Boblo Boats: A Tale of Two Sisters. Within that documentary is the story of Sarah Elizabeth Ray, a woman hailed as “Detroit’s other Rosa Parks” for her experience on the Boblo Boats.
Aaron Schillinger, the filmmaker behind the documentary, said Ray was forcibly escorted off The Columbia in 1945, when she and her all-white group of classmates were about to embark on a trip to Boblo Island to celebrate their graduation from secretarial school. Ray shared her story with the NAACP, starting a three-year case that ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court under then-attorney Thurgood Marshall. Ray won the case, putting an end to racial segregation at Michigan amusement parks.
"She must have had that fight in her the whole time because she decided when she got kicked off the boat that she was gonna do something right away," Schillinger said.
Detroit writer Desiree Cooper worked with Schillinger on a mini-documentary that features a stop-motion animation of Ray’s story. Cooper, who met Ray in 2006, said Ray seemed to feel she had been forgotten by Detroit.
"She was very anxious to kind of get [her story] out and make sure at least one more person knew about it,” Cooper said. “I have to say, more than that, I felt as she was talking that she was still on that pier. You know what I mean? Like, time had sort of frozen in that moment. It was a moment that she was never, ever going to forget."
Cooper also said she and Schillinger hope their work will prompt more people to come forward with information about Ray to help “round out her story.”
"Especially in this moment, in this time, where we are learning how cruelly miseducated we were about history, we really want Detroiters and the world to know more about the many forgotten people who brought us to this moment,” she added.