Viola Desmond: Canadian Civil Rights Hero

Viola Irene Desmond (July 6, 1914 – February 7, 1965) was a Canadian businesswoman and civil rights activist who built a career and business as a beautician. She was a mentor to young Black women through her Desmond School of Beauty Culture. She is known as the first woman to challenge racial segregation when she refused to leave the Whites-only section at a cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Desmond was arrested and jailed overnight and charged with tax evasion as a result. Despite receiving help from the Nova Scotian Black community, Desmond was unable to remove the charges against her. She went the rest of her life without receiving justice. Desmond’s refusal to accept an act of racial discrimination inspired later generations of Black citizens in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada.

In 2010, Lieutenant Governor Mayann Francis issued Desmond a free pardon. In December 2016, the Bank of Canada announced that Viola Desmond would be the first Canadian woman to be featured on a Canadian banknote. The $10 banknote was released in November 2018. That same year, Desmond was named a National Historic Person by the Government of Canada.

A black and white photo of a young Viola Desmond, Canadian businesswoman and civil rights hero.
Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Early Life and Family: 

Viola Desmond was born on July 6, 1914, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was brought up in a large family with 10 siblings. Her parents, James Albert and Gwendoline Irene, were highly regarded members of the Black community in Halifax. James was raised in a middle-class Black family. He worked as stevedore for several years before he became a barber. Gwendoline was the daughter of a White minister and his wife, who moved to Halifax from New Haven, Connecticut. Gwendoline stayed at home and took care of the children. Although racial mixing was not uncommon during the early 20th century, interracial marriage was rare. Nonetheless, her parents were accepted into the Black community in Halifax. They became active and prominent members of various community organizations.

When she came of age, Desmond initially pursued a teaching career. She taught between two racially-segregated schools in Halifax. But as a child, Desmond developed an interest in cosmetology. This was likely due to the growth of Black haircare products that became available in her area. At the time, no beauty schools in Nova Scotia were accepting Black women. Instead of giving up her dream, Desmond travelled to Montreal to study at the Field Beauty Culture School, one of the few institutions in Canada that accepted Black students. She continued her training in Atlantic City and in New York. She later opened a salon called Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in Halifax, catering to the Black community.

Vi's Studio of Beauty Culture.
Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Entrepreneur and Community Leader: 

In the early 20th century, with the advent of new hairstyles that demanded special product and maintenance, and an emphasis on fashion trends and personal grooming, beauty parlours began offering opportunities to female entrepreneurs. Black women in particular were able to discover opportunities that were not otherwise available. Beauty parlours became a centre of social contact within the Black community, allowing the shop owner to achieve a position of status and authority.

Viola Desmond's School of Beauty Culture
Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Viola Desmond quickly found success. She opened a beauty school, the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, because she didn’t want other Black women to endure the difficulties she had trying to receive proper training. Enrolment in Desmond’s school grew rapidly, with students from New Brunswick and Quebec. About 15 students graduated from the school each year. Later down the road, Desmond created a cosmetic line for people with darker complexions, called Vi’s Beauty products. She marketed and sold the products herself.

Despite her many accomplishments, Desmond still had to deal with the racist practice of segregation. Segregation is the enforced separation of racial groups. In Canada, there were no official laws enforcing the separation of Black and White Canadians. However, communities and businesses such as shops, theatres, and restaurants made their own unofficial rules.

Roseland Theatre:

On November 8, 1946, Desmond’s car unexpectedly broke down when she was on her way to a business meeting in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Because of this, she made an unplanned stop in the town of New Glasgow. After being told that the repair would take several hours, she arranged for a hotel room and decided to catch a film to pass the time.

At the Roseland Theatre, Desmond requested a ticket for a seat on the main floor. The ticket seller handed her a balcony ticket instead, where non-White customers were expected to sit. When she entered the main floor area, an usher told her that her ticket was meant for the balcony, where she would have to move. Thinking an error had been made, Desmond returned to the cashier and asked to exchange her ticket for main floor. The cashier refused, saying they were not allowed to sell main floor tickets to Black citizens. Desmond decided to sit on the main floor anyway.

A black and white photo of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.
Source: CBC

Desmond was confronted my management, who told her that the theatre had the right to refuse admission to any objectionable person. She pointed out that she had not been refused admission and that the ticket was in fact still in her hand. She added that she had offered to pay the difference in cost for a main floor ticket but was refused. As a result, Desmond was then forcibly removed from her seat, arrested and held overnight in a jail cell, shocked and in disbelief.

Because it costs more than one cent for a main floor seat than a balcony seat, Desmond was charged with tax evasion. She had to pay a fee of $26 in court to be released from custody.

Viola Desmond’s Trial: 

When she arrived home, Desmond’s husband, Jack, advised her to drop the matter. He had grown used to the act of racism that prevailed in the province over the years, and told her it was best to leave the situation alone. “Take it to the Lord with prayer” was his suggestion. The leaders of her church, however, urged her to fight for her rights. The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People offered its support as well. Carrie Best, the founder of The Clarion, the province’s second Black-owned and operated newspaper, took a special interest in the case. Best had a similar experience five years earlier, when she and her son were removed from the Roseland Theatre for sitting in the Whites-only section. She unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit against the theatre’s management. The Clarion followed Desmond’s story closely – often on the front page.

The Viola Desmond case.
Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Desmond also hired a lawyer, Frederick Bissett, to represent her in court. The lawsuit he filed against Roseland Theatre proved unsuccessful because he argued that his client was wrongfully accused of tax evasion rather than pointing out that she was discriminated because of her race. Bissett later applied to the Supreme Court to put the criminal conviction aside. The case had come to an end, and Desmond was left without justice. Bissett had failed her.

Viola Desmond’s Trial (Continued):

Unlike the United States, Jim Crow wasn’t a strict law in Canada. So, Bissett would’ve succeeded had he pointed out that the private movie theatre attempted to enforce segregated seating. But just because Canada lacked Jim Crow didn’t mean that Black people escaped racism. Aufa Cooper, Black Canadian studies professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told Al Jazeera that Desmond’s case should be viewed through a Canadian lens.

“I think it’s about time that Canada recognizes its Black citizens, people who have suffered,” said Cooper. “Canada has its own homegrown, anti-Black racism, and anti-African racism that it has to deal with without comparing it to the U.S. We live here. We don’t live in America. Desmond lived in Canada.”

The court case marked the first known legal challenge presented by a Black woman in Canada. Although Desmond lost, her efforts inspired Black Nova Scotians to demand equal treatment and put a spotlight on racial injustice in Canada. And In 1954, segregation finally ended in Nova Scotia.

Significance and Legacy:

It’s difficult to know how Desmond felt about her brave stand and its aftermath. Eventually, and perhaps due to her experience with the Nova Scotia legal system, her marriage with Jack ended in divorce. Desmond left her hometown in Halifax and relocated to Montreal to attend business school. She later moved to New York, where she died alone of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on February 7, 1965, at age 50.

Decades after her death, Viola’s story began to receive public attention. In 2003, Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson, enrolled in a course on race relations in North America at University College of Cape Breton (now Cape Breton University) taught by Graham Reynolds. In the course, Reynolds related the experience of Viola Desmond, causing Wanda to speak out. With the help of Reynolds, she began a prolonged effort to share her sister’s story. In 2010, Wanda published a book about Desmond’s life called “Sister to Courage.”

Canada Post stamp featuring the face of Viola Desmond.
Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

On April 15, 2010, Viola Desmond was granted a free pardon by Lieutenant Governor Mayann Francis at a ceremony in Halifax. The pardon recognized that Desmond’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice and that the charges should not have been laid. At the formal ceremony, Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs and Economic and Rural Development Percy Paris said, “With this pardon, we are acknowledging the wrongdoing of the past, and we are reinforcing our stance that discrimination and hate will not be tolerated.”

In 2010, the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice was established at Cape Breton University. In 2012, Canada Post issued a stamp in honour of Viola Desmond. A Heritage Minute relating Desmond’s story was released during Black History Month in February 2016.

Significance and Legacy (Continued): 

On March 8, 2016, on International Women’s Day, the Bank of Canada launched a public consultation to choose the first Canadian woman to appear on the face of a Canadian banknote. On December 8, 2016, it was announced that Desmond would appear on the face of the $10 note.

Canada's $10 bill featuring the face of Viola Desmond.
Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

In 2017, Desmond was inducted to Canada’s Walk of Fame under the Philanthropy & Humanities category. In January 2018, she was named a National Historic Person by the Canadian government. On July 6, 2018, a Google doodle telling Desmond’s story was released in Canada in celebration of her 104th birthday.

On November 19, 2018, the $10 bill featuring Viola Desmond was released. The bill was Canada’s first vertical banknote. It also features a map of the North End of Halifax, where Desmond lived and worked. It also includes an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination.” The Canadian Museum of Human Rights is featured on the back of the bill.

In February 2019, the Royal Canadian Mint announced the first release of its first Black History Month coin, a pure silver coin featuring an engraved image of Viola Desmond. In April 2019, the $10 bill featuring Desmond won the International Bank Note Society’s Banknote of the Year Award for 2018.

The government of Nova Scotia repaid an adjusted amount of Viola’s fine to her sister in February 2021. Wanda used the $1,000 to fund a scholarship at Cape Breton University.

A True Canadian Hero:

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Viola Desmond’s story, it’s to not give up on something that we believe in. No matter what obstacles or challenges that life may throw at us, we have to keep fighting. And although Desmond’s trial may have failed, her bravery and perseverance has inspired millions of Black Canadians to stand up for their rights and fight for equal treatment. Because of her, Black people have more rights today than they did 50 years ago, and racial segregation no longer exists in Canada. Today, Viola Desmond is known as a true Canadian civil rights hero.

May we always honor Viola Desmond’s hard work and dedication. She will always be remembered as one of the most heroic people in Canadian history. Her legacy will live on forever.

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