Desegregating the SS Columbia

SOCIAL STUDIES – On June 21, 1945, 24-year-old Sarah Elizabeth Ray had just completed her secretarial course in Detroit and eagerly boarded the SS Columbia with her classmates to celebrate at Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park. The only African American in the group, Ray boarded the ship, but a crew member told her she had to leave. “At first I refused,” she said, “but then I saw that they were going to throw me off. My teacher said, ‘She’ll go quietly.’ It was embarrassing.” She kept the names of the workers who escorted her off the SS Columbia and refused a refund for her eighty-five-cent fare.

SS Columbia’s Logbook for June 21, 1945 does not mention Mrs. Ray.
SS Columbia
From the Edward O. Clark Collection, SSHSA Archives.

Ray then contacted the NAACP in Detroit, which brought charges against the Bob-Lo Excursion Company for violating state Civil Rights laws. The case made it to the Supreme Court, with Thurgood Marshall serving as the chief legal counsel. He won the case, Bob-Lo Excursion Company v. Michigan, and five years later won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education that struck down the “separate but equal” ruling in regards to segregated education. After the race riots in Detroit in 1967, Ray and her husband purchased a building and converted it into a community center called Action House to “forge positive interracial relations.”

SS Columbia
From the Edward O. Clark Collection, SSHSA Archives.

Like Ray, Arnold Donald, now CEO of Carnival Cruises, was involved in the Civil Rights movement. He grew up poor in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward and went to an all-black high school, St. Augustine. His high school filed law suits with the Supreme Court to compete in athletics and allow the marching band to participate in the Mardi Gras parade, which was segregated at the time. Donald, in the band in eighth grade at the time, got to march in that first integrated Mardi Gras parade. Donald worked hard, got two undergraduate degrees, and pursued his goals in business. He said that some of his big breaks were being born into his family, integration, and going to St. Augustine school, which gave him the motivation to realize his dreams.

SS Columbia
SS Columbia. From the Edward O. Clark Collection, SSHSA Archives.

Today, the SS Columbia Project is working to revitalize the SS Columbia, the oldest remaining excursion steamship in America. The National Register of Historic Places listed the ship in 1979 and designated it a historic landmark in 1992. After Sarah Elizabeth Ray and Thurgood Marshall brought their case to the Supreme Court and won, forcing Bob-Lo Excursion Company to integrate, many people, of all ages and races, have wonderful memories of their trips to the amusement park. Watch the video below created by Matt Reznik and Emilie Evans, the oral historian for the project, that documents passenger memories of the SS Columbia and what the ship meant to them.

Download “From Desegregation to Restoration: On Board the SS COLUMBIA” by Aimee Bachari, PowerShips (Winter 2018).

Primary Sources

Click on the images below for a closer look at the clippings from the Bob-Lo Scrapbook at the SSHSA Archives.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why was desegregating recreational spaces different than educational or governmental spaces in the United States?
  2. How does this incident fit into the wider context of the civil rights movement?
  3. How much was the Bob-Lo Excursion Company fined for violating Michigan’s civil rights laws?
  4. What are the differences between Sarah Elizabeth Ray and Arnold Donald? How far have we come and where are we still lacking in terms of racial equality in the United States?

Additional Resources

Read an in depth article about Sarah Elizabeth Ray’s life and the Bob-Lo incident.

View the entire Supreme Court Case, Bob-Lo Excursion Company v. Michigan. 

Learn more about Arnold Donald’s journey.

For more information on the SS Columbia Project visit their website

Learn more about segregation of recreational spaces: Victoria W. Walcott, Race, Riots, and Rollercoasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

For information on riverboats and slave life on the Mississippi and Ohio river, read this article.

Watch the SS Columbia also known as the Boblo boat move down the Detroit River.

Education Standards

National Council for Social Studies

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