In honour of Black History Month, Afrocentric wanted to take a moment to honour a woman who was not afraid to take a stand by taking a seat in the ‘white’s only’ section of a local Nova Scotia theatre; Viola Desmond.
Viola Desmond was born on July 6, 1914 into a large family that was active in the community within Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her parents were James Albert and Gwendolin Irene Davis, with her father black and her mother white, unusual for the time. viola was raised to believe she could achieve her dreams.
Growing up, viola noted the absence of professional hair and skin-care products for black women and set her sights on addressing the need. When Viola graduated from high school she wanted to attend a beautician school in Halifax. However, because she was of african descent she wasn’t allowed to attend the school. Viola made the decision to head to Montreal to attend school – she also travelled to Atlantic City and one of Madam C. J. Walker's beauty schools in New York to pursue her education. When Viola finished her education she returned to Halifax where she opened a very successful salon. Her clients included Portia White and a young Gwen Jenkins (later the first black nurse in Nova Scotia)
In the coming years, Viola opened The Desmond School of Beauty Culture – Students were provided with the skills required to open their own businesses and provide jobs for other black women within their communities in Canada's east coast or the place of their choice. Each year as many as fifteen women graduated from the school, all of whom had been denied admission to whites-only training schools. Viola was quite the entrepreneur, and launched a line of beauty products Vi’s Beauty Products and opened a combined barbershop and hairdressing salon with her husband, Jack Desmond on Gottingen Street.
Why is viola desmond a legend?
In 1946, Viola’s car broke down while she was travelling through the town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. While her car was being worked on, Viola decided to see a movie at the local theatre called Roseland Theatre. Although Viola had enough money to purchase the main floor ticket, she wasn’t allowed to – she was only allowed to sit in the black’s only balcony.
Viola refused to sit on the balcony and chose to take a seat in the main floor area. She was forcibly removed from the theatre, carried off to jail and charged with tax evasion. The argument? Balcony tickets charged an extra penny in taxes. Desmond was convicted and forced to pay a fine of $26, which was quite a lot of money at that time. Viola paid the fine because she simply wanted to get home to Halifax.
When Viola returned home she met with her church and her family. together, they decided to appeal the court's decision. She appealed the conviction to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia which drew the attention of the public in Nova Scotia and across Canada. Although she lost the appeal, Viola’s story grew and started discussions about discrimination against people of color and segregation in Canada. After the failed attempts to appeal her case against Roseland Theatre, Desmond closed her business and enrolled in business school in Montreal. She died in 1965 in New York at 50 years old and never received a pardon while she was living from the Canadian government.
What is Viola Desmond's legacy?
In 2010, the government of Nova Scotia granted Viola Desmond the first ever Canadian posthumous pardon, They also offered an official apology to Viola’s family for the error of justice. In 2010 a Viola Desmond stamp was released by Canada Post.
In a most significant recognition of Viola’s impact on Canada. 2018 will see the introduction of Viola Desmond on the Canadian $10 bill. Viola will be the first person of color on Canada’s currency and the first woman, other than the Queen, to grace our Canadian currency.
Viola Desmond is a woman worth celebrating.