When the SS Columbia (built in 1902) first floated into Buffalo, no one could have guessed the history that floated along with her. Not only is the Columbia the doppelgänger to Buffalo’s once beloved SS Canadiana (only the wheelhouse and a lifeboat remain), the ship is also an important piece of black history. You see, when the Columbia was active back in its heyday it ferried Detroiters from downtown Detroit to Canada’s Bois Blanc Island (known as Bob-Lo Island), where a popular amusement park was located.
Years after segregation practices were banned, a young black girl by the name of Sara Elizabeth Ray was kicked off the Columbia, which was being privately operated. Instead of standing down, Ray decided to take her issue with the operators to court (assisted by the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall), and won. This was a herculean undertaking for Ray, who not only stood up for herself, she stood up against segregation as a whole, thus clearing the way for others to forge their own battles.
SS Columbia, the oldest remaining excursion steamship in the United States, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and designated as an historic landmark in 1992.
“This story deserves to be told to a wider audience,” said Ian Danic, who is the Co-Chair of SS Columbia project, and on the Board of Directors. “You hear of people saying stop erasing black history? Well, here’s history that is still being uncovered. The hero is an individual who wanted to the right thing. Unfortunately, these non-inclusionary practices were the norm and widely practiced, even though segregation and discrimination were illegal at the time. Private organizations like BobLo just ignored the law. Ray said ‘This is not right.’ She put an end to it. It turns out that she was not widely recognized for her efforts at the time. She ended up getting married, and adopted the name Lizz, to move on from the difficult experience of going through the court battles. This was all just discovered. And with the help of the film, the SS Columbia Project and wider visibility for Sara’s story, perhaps more will be revealed by those who have first hand knowledge of the history?“
Not only is the story of Sara Elizabeth Ray timely, it’s poignant. Just think about the climate of race relations in the US with the Black Lives Matter movement. Then think of Ray’s early efforts, that helped pave the way for others, including Rosa Parks.
When the SS Columbia first arrived in Buffalo, it was known that this city would be a stopping point along an even further journey, to her final destination on the Hudson River. Her final destination and timeline will most likely be determined by the fundraising success, or lack thereof. One way or another, someone has got to step up to the plate, to secure the future of the vessel.
According to Danic, the Columbia team has already raised well over $4 million. But it would take another $20 million to get the vessel shipshape. “There is a historical significance and need to save the vessel as a cultural asset which tells the story of various histories: technology, civil rights, the arts (music was a big part of the boat), recreation, transportation, among others,” said Danic.
Who knows, maybe Buffalo should rally to keep the vessel on the Great Lakes? That’s something to consider, since she’s already berthed here. Wouldn’t it be great to see an operational transport and excursion ferry of this magnitude back on the Great Lakes?
Moving forward, the plan is to bring as much attention to the plight of the Columbia as much as possible. On Tuesday, July 21 at 7pm, the story of the Columbia and Sara Elizabeth Ray will be screened via a virtual ZOOM! session, co-hosted by the National Maritime Historical Society, the Steamship Historical Society of America’s, and the SS Columbia Project. The Detroit Historical Society will provide the panel moderator, and the filmmaker Aaron Schillinger, will be joined on the panel by two authors/historians, Desiree Cooper and Victoria Wolcott (the latter of UB).
Aaron Schillinger, Filmmaker, Director, Producer, Video Editor, Writer
Aaron Schillinger is a filmmaker whose directorial debut is the forthcoming Boblo Boats: A Tale of Sisters. The documentary follows the rag tag group of Detroiters who are fighting to save the infamous Boblo Island amusement park ferry boat from the scrapyard. It is narrated by Motown legend Martha Reeves and was chosen as a finalist for FilmShop’s 2019 Breakthrough Competition at Film Society of Lincoln Center. Aaron’s production company BabyVolcano Films specializes in telling stories that make a lasting impact. Their clients include non- profits such as the National Eating Disorders Association and the Horticultural Society of New York.Baby Volcano’s short film Pepper (2018) received premieres at the Seattle International Film Festival, Jeonju International Film Festival and Cleveland International Film Festival. Aaron graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in Cinema Studies.
Malika Pryor, Senior Director, Education and Programs, Detroit Historical Society
With nearly 15 years of experience in the non-profit and legal sectors, Malika is a leader and servant who expands organizational capacity and has successfully navigated her teams through significant change. Growing wherever she’s planted, Malika has impacted institutions and communities stateside and abroad: in her hometown, Detroit; Atlanta; and Nassau, The Bahamas.
Desiree Cooper, Author, Speaker, Commentator, Writing Faculty
Desiree Cooper is a 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow and former attorney. For more than a decade, she penned an award-winning column for the Detroit Free Press, during which she received two Pulitzer Prize nominations. Her debut collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, is a 2017 Michigan Notable Book that has won numerous awards, including the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Award. Cooper’s flash fiction has appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2018, Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction, Electric Literature, COG Magazine, and in the forthcoming Choice Words: Writers on Abortion. Her essay, “We Have Lost Too Many Wigs,” was listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2019. In 2018, she wrote, produced and co-directed “The Choice,” a short film about reproductive rights based upon her flash fiction story, “First Response.” The film has won several awards, including a 2019 Outstanding Achievement Award from the Berlin Flash Film Festival, and Award of Merit, 2019 Best Shorts Competition, California.
Victoria Wolcott, Professor, Author, Historian
Victoria W. Wolcott is Professor of History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. She has published two books: Remaking Respectability: African-American Women in Interwar Detroit (2001) and Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America (2012). In addition, she has published articles in The Journal of American History, The Radical History Review, and the Journal of Women’s History among others. She teaches African American and Urban History as well as the history of leisure and recreation in America.
Ann Loeding, Port Captain, Restoration Manager and Interim Executive Director, The SS Columbia Project
Captain Loeding came up through the hawsepipe working on tugs in New York Harbor, eventually specializing in operating older single-screw boats on inland water routes – Hudson River, Erie Canal, Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway. She has served as a project manager and fundraiser for many historic vessel projects over the past 25 years, including fireboat John J. Harvey, canal motor vessel Day Peckinpaugh, and covered barge Pennsylvania Railroad No. 399. Captain Loeding has served as SSCP’s Restoration Coordinator since 2013. As a professional mariner accustomed to working towards a clear goal in the midst of changing conditions, she brings to the project a straight-forward, reality-oriented management process. In the past five years, Captain Loeding and her crew have gotten the boat from Detroit to the shipyard in Toledo, managed replacement of 60% of the underwater hull and structural repairs to the upper decks, coordinated transit from Toledo to Buffalo, undertaken work to stabilize the deckhouse and engine room to retard further weather damage, and coordinated full laser and photo scans to create a permanent digital record of the vessel. Since recently taking over as Executive Director, her duties have expanded to include supporting fundraising and strategic planning efforts, communicating with partners and supporters, and general organization housekeeping – all of which she has come to regard as the winds and tides of a shore-based job.
Ian Danic, Co-Chairman, The SS Columbia Project
Mr. Danic grew up near Detroit and fond memories of traveling on Columbia inspire his enthusiasm for restoring the boat. Mr. Danic is co-founder and Executive Director of Electra Information Systems. In addition to serving as Co-Chairman of The SS Columbia Project, he sits on the Board of Directors of The River Project and The Helicon Foundation, and resides in Buffalo.