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Celebrating Black History Month: Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond
Viola Desmond / Photo via Ottawa Citizen

You may know Viola Desmond from school lessons, from history books, from the ten dollar bill, or from the Viola Desmond room on the third floor of CSI Spadina! Desmond was an entrepreneur who helped to catalyze the Canadian Civil Rights movement. This is the first in our series of articles to uncover more about the Canadian icons that we’ve named spaces after. For more, check out the Nova Scotia Government’s documentary about Viola Davis, Long Road to Justice, below.

Viola Desmond with the graduating class of The Desmond Studio of Beauty Culture
Viola Desmond with the graduating class of The Desmond Studio of Beauty Culture, 1947. Photo via Ottawa Citizen / Handout Photo

Desmond grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia and aspired to open a beauty salon, but Nova Scotia beauty schools didn’t accept Black students. And so, Desmond took matters into her own hands, and studied at one of the few institutions that allowed Black applicants, the Field Beauty Culture School in Montreal, with additional training in the United States. From there, she became a successful entrepreneur, opening Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture and then the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, at which she trained upwards of 15 Black women every year. Desmond also created and sold a line of beauty products, Vi’s Beauty Products, designed specifically for Black women. 

Here’s the story that you likely know (from sources like this Heritage Minute). On November 8, 1946, Desmond was driving through Nova Scotia on her way to a business meeting when her car broke down in the town of New Glasglow. Since she was stuck there until her car was repaired, Desmond decided to visit the Roseland Theatre to catch a film. Desmond bought a ticket and grabbed a seat at the front of the theater, her preferred location due to her height and eyesight. After being informed that the seat she had selected was more expensive, Desmond went back to the box office to pay the difference in cost, only to be told “we’re not allowed to sell tickets — downstairs tickets — to you people.” Desmond refused to sit in the balcony, which was the designated seating area for Black people, and was subsequently dragged out of the theater by the manager, leaving her badly injured. She was shortly arrested and spent the night in jail.  

Desmond was not the first person that this happened to, nor the first to challenge it in court; Carrie M. Best, founder and editor of Nova Scotia’s first Black-owned newspaper, The Clarion, experienced a similar ordeal with her son just five years prior. Neither Desmond nor Best’s court cases were successful; segregation policies wouldn’t begin to end in Nova Scotia until the 1950s.

Viola Desmond on the Cover of The Clarion The Clarion newspaper: "Miss Viola Desmond Takes Action," 1946.
Viola Desmond on the Cover of The Clarion / Photo via Canadian Encyclopedia / Nova Scotia Archives on Flickr

Desmond’s court case, in which she appealed her conviction that eventually went before the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, was ultimately unsuccessful, but it is considered a catalyst of the Canadian Civil Rights movement today. Unfortunately, the personal cost to Desmond for pursuing legal action had long term ramifications; she ended up abandoning her business, divorcing her husband, and leaving for Montreal. She later died in New York City in 1965.

At the time, Desmond was described as a ‘quiet revolutionary’, similar to Rosa Parks, who protested segregation in a similar manner nine years after Desmond. However quiet, her courage and actions played an important role in turning the tide towards equal rights for all. While race and segregation were never mentioned in her court case, it became clear to participants that the charges weren’t truly just about a difference in paid fare. 

From Justice William Lorimer Hall: “One wonders if the manager of the theatre who laid the complaint was so zealous because of a bona fide belief that there had been an attempt to defraud the province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavour to enforce a Jim Crow rule by misuse of a public statute.”

Wanda Robson, left, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter and Percy Paris, minister of African Nova Scotian affairs, watch as Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis signs the official pardon for Robson's sister, Viola Desmond, on April 15, 2010.
Photo via CBC / Canadian Press

It was Desmond’s younger sister, Wanda Robson, who pushed to have her sister pardoned posthumously. “I wrote to the mayor thinking that nothing would come of it,” Robson said to CBC. “Next thing you know … the injustice was brought forward and she was granted this pardon. So now it has come full circle, this whole act, my sister and the pride that goes with it.” Desmond was pardoned in 2010 by Mayann Francis, the first Black Lieutenant-Governor in Nova Scotia. 

Desmond’s story has been known for decades, but it came to light for the general public more broadly when she was selected in 2016 to be the new face of the $10 bill. And while this does not make up for the injustice Desmond suffered, it is significant – she will be the first Canadian woman featured on a bill. 

There’s much to admire and learn from Viola Desmond, from her innovative and entrepreneurial spirit in the face of discrimination to her resilience to stand up for herself and for what’s right. While segregation is no longer the law of the land, discriminatory and racist acts persist. A 2019 study found that “nearly half (46%) of Black people aged 15 years and older reported experiencing at least one form of discrimination in the past 5 years, compared to 16% of the non-Indigenous, non-visible minority population.” It’s up to us to speak up in the face of anti-Black racism and discrimination of all kinds, to educate ourselves about experiences that differ from our own, and to build a better world.

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A black and white photograph from the 1940s of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.
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