Desegregating the SS Columbia

SOCIAL STUDIES – Learn about racial tensions in Detroit, the fight to desegregate a ship, and how this episode in history paves the way for Thurgood Marshall’s victory in Brown vs. Board of Education.

Learning Objectives:

  • Students will learn about racial tensions in Detroit during the World War II period.
  • By examining primary source material, students will see how tensions caused by segregated spaces gave way to “race riots” or white mob attacks and eventually a legal battle argued by Thurgood Marshall for the desegregation of the SS Columbia ship.
  • Students will gain insight into the civil rights movement in the North.
  • After contextual reading, students can either work in groups or alone to discuss the questions for further thought at the bottom. Extension activities like a four corners debate and writing an editorial are also linked at the bottom of this page.

Student Article

On June 21, 1945, 24-year-old Sarah Elizabeth Ray had just completed her secretarial course in Detroit. She eagerly boarded the SS Columbia with her classmates to celebrate at Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park. The only black woman 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. Ms. Ray refused a refund for her eighty-five-cent fare.

To understand the context of Ms. Ray’s encounter, and Thurgood Marshall’s role in the legal battle that ensued, helping pave the way for Brown vs. Board of Education, it is important to understand the history of confrontations between white and black citizens of Detroit.

SS Columbia‘s Logbook for June 21, 1945 does not mention Mrs. Ray or the incident of asking her to leave the ship. Logbook donated by Bob Englemen, in July, 1979, SSHSA Archives.

According to the War Manpower Commission, approximately 500,000 migrants moved to Detroit between June 1940 and June 1943 to work in the wartime industries. Because of discrimination against employment of blacks in pre-war industries, the overwhelming majority of the approximately 50,000 blacks who went to Detroit in this three year period moved there during the fifteen months prior to the race riot (as they were called at the time) of June 1943. According to Governor Harry S. Kelly, of Michigan, a total of 345,000 persons moved into Detroit during that same fifteen month period. There was little out migration as industry called for more workers in one of the tightest labor markets in the US.

The coming of white workers recruited chiefly in the South complicated the housing, transportation, educational, and recreation facilities of Detroit. These migrants also brought with them the traditional prejudices of Deep South states. According to the Research and Analysis Department of the UAW-CIO (United Auto Workers Union), the United States Employment Service, the Detroit Bureau of Governmental Research, and the Detroit branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the overwhelming majority of the 250,000 to 300,000 white immigrants to Detroit during the year immediately preceding the race riot came from the South.

White residents organized neighborhood associations in order to keep blacks out. Realtors drafted contracts that excluded people from neighborhoods based on race. Michigan’s Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of these contracts that excluded blacks in 1923 and it remained that way until 1948.

White mob attacks date back as far as the famous Sweet case in 1925. In some instances, police secretly allowed white citizens to perpetrate these attacks on black homes. In practically no cases had there been arrests of whites who had stoned or bombed the homes of black residents.

In the early 1940s, Detroit was still a very segregated city. During July 1941, alleged attacks by Polish youth against black residents in Detroit took place. Homes of black residents on Horton, Chippewa, West Grand Boulevard, and other streets close to but outside of the segregated black areas were attacked by mobs with no police interference.

Police question black men during the clashes over the Sojourner Truth Housing Projects on February 28, 1942. Photo courtesy of Detroit News.

The notorious riots revolving around the question of who should occupy the Sojourner Truth Housing project in February, 1942, are another example of the bitter fight for housing between whites and blacks. The National Housing Administration reversed itself several times on whether the building would house black occupants. Mob violence ensued, leading to the smashing of the furniture. Others beat black tenants attempting to move into the project.

Workplace discrimination also played a major role in the 1943 riot. Early in June 1943, 25,000 employees of the Packard Plant, which was making Rolls-Royce engines for American bombers and marine engines for the famous PT boats, ceased work in protest against the upgrading of three black workers. Subsequent investigations indicated that only a relatively small percentage of the Packard workers actually wanted to go on strike, but a few Ku Klux Klan elements at the company stirred up controversy. The UAW-CIO bitterly fought the strike.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor lists the strikes in Detroit to prevent employment and upgrading of black workers for the three-month period March 1, 1943 through May 31, 1943. This record shows that 101,955 man-days or 2,446,920 man-hours of war production were lost by these stoppages.

A white mob pulls a black man off a streetcar in Detroit during the racist unrest in 1943.

Thomas Sugrue, a professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University and author of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, stated that the June 1943 race riot was overwhelmingly whites attacking blacks, pulling them out of streetcars and beating them up, which caused a pitched battle between black and white residents of Detroit. The white rioters were younger and often unemployed. If working, they often held semi-skilled or skilled position.

Groups of white people traveled across the city to join the first stage of the riot near the bridge to Belle Isle Park, and later some traveled in armed groups explicitly to attack the black neighborhood in Paradise Valley. As the violence escalated, blacks dragged whites out of cars and looted white-owned stores in Paradise Valley, while whites overturned and burned black-owned vehicles and attacked black people on streetcars along Woodward Avenue and other major streets.  The Detroit police did little in the rioting, often siding with the white rioters in the violence.

Rioters overturn a car on Woodward and Vernor. Moments later they set it on fire.
The aftermath.

The black participants were often older, established city residents, who in many cases had lived in the city for more than a decade. Many were married working men and were defending their homes and neighborhood against police and white rioters. Nine white and 25 black residents were killed. No white individuals were killed by police, whereas 17 African American died at the hands of police violence. 700 people were reportedly injured, with damages amounting to two million dollars.

The NAACP reported on the causes of the riot that broke out on late on June 20, 1943 on the Belle Isle bridge. The report demonstrated housing shortages, discrimination in employment, and police abuse. But the spark that ignited the violence was the use of recreational space. It provided recommendations to the city to alleviate the racial tensions. One such recommendation was about recreational spaces:

For years it has been apparent that Detroit's recreation facilities were inadequate to meet the need. 

We recommend the following: 

1. That all school grounds in congested areas be immediately made available for leisure-time activity. 

2. That recreation leaders be employed to take over these newly opened fields. 

3. That community agencies implement the Recreation Department to provide clean, wholesome fun this summer, especially should the churches turn to opening centers in their basements or on other property that is available and properly supervised. 

4. That in congested areas where problems of delinquency have reached saturation point and interracial feeling is high, special workers be employed immediately to coordinate and correlate civic, social, church and community programs. 

5. That emergency funds be released by the Common Council for this purpose if such funds are not available in the Recreation Commission's budget. 

6. That special funds be released or made available by churches and other agencies to meet their portion of this emergency program. 

7. That special attention be given in a recreational program to the problems of so-called "jitterbugs and hoodlums" who are in great need of constructive activity under competent leadership. 

8. To create a better understanding between young people who at tender ages are unaware of the significance of this problem of racial antagonism, we recommend that all organizations, such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the 
Y.M.C.A., Board of Education, Urban League, Church, etc., maintaining summer camps, immediately plan to include children of ALL RACES in their summer program, so that in addition to a summer of fun, special attention may be given to the problem of living together.
SS Columbia
From the Edward O. Clark Collection, SSHSA Archives.

Its recommendation did not mention Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park or Belle Isle Park.

Just two years and one day after the infamous 1943 riot, employees on board the SS Columbia would not allow Sarah Elizabeth Ray to ride the boat to Bob-Lo Island.

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

After the incident, Ray 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. They argued that the company’s policy excluding “colored people” violated the Michigan state civil rights law.

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 another race riot occurred 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.”

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.

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

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 a Scrapbook at the SSHSA Archives.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. How 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. What are the similarities and differences of the modern Black Lives Matter movements and the Detroit race riot of 1943?
  4. How does police involvement or lack of involvement in riots affect white residents compared to black residents in 1943 Detroit? Do you think this has changed in recent years? Why or why not?
  5. What does this history tell you about discrimination and the civil rights movement in the North?

Extension Activities

Have students participate in a Four Corners debate that requires students to show their position on a specific statement (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree) by standing in a particular corner of the room. This activity elicits the participation of all students by requiring everyone to take a position. This can be done before students read the information above or after.

Ask students to write an Editorial or Opinion about the information they just learned.

Additional Resources

Learn about the history of American policing, the great migration, and the race riots that followed from historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad on Throughline podcast by NPR.

Walter White and Thurgood Marshall’s report on the 1943 riot in Detroit, NAACP, July 1943.

Dominic J. Capeci, Jr. and Martha Wilkerson, “The Detroit Rioters of 1943: A Reinterpretation,” Michigan Historical Review, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1990) 49 -72.

Detroit Historical Society, Race Riot of 1943.

Read the full article “From Desegregation to Restoration: On Board the SS Columbia,” published in PowerShips magazine on the history of SSHSA’s ship of the year, the SS Columbia and the fight for civil rights in Michigan.

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. 

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).

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

Education Standards

National Council for Social Studies

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.