With Black History Month approaching, I think it appropriate that we recognize a former Black Activist, Viola Desmond, especially since her image has been chosen to be on the new $10.00 bill.
Although often referred to as Canada’s Rosa Parks, I believe it should be the other way around since Viola’s quiet act of defiance actually happened nine years before that of Rosa Park’s. Also, Claudette Colvin, a Black teen refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery the same year Rosa did but nine months before. Unfortunately, her name is often forgotten. Regardless, all three women displayed great courage standing up for their rights.
As for Viola, she became a beautician and businesswoman but not without roadblocks being placed in her way. For starters, she could not go to hairdressing school in Halifax as Black women were not admitted. So she went to Montreal and later New York and New Jersey, eventually receiving her diploma from a renown Beauty School in Atlantic City. Later, she also manufactured and marketed her own, Vi’s Beauty Products.
In 1946, while on a business trip, her car broke down in New Glasgow. While waiting for it to be repaired, she decided to go to a movie. Since she was not aware that Blacks were restricted to sitting in the balcony, she asked for a ticket on the main floor but was given a balcony ticket instead. When the usher told her she had to sit in the balcony, she thought a mistake had been made so returned to have her ticket changed. When she learned that she was denied a main floor seat because of race and was told, “it’s not permitted for people like you,” she defiantly went back and found a seat on the main floor. For this she was jailed after being dragged from the theatre by police, fined $20.00, as well as a $6.00 court fine and was sentenced to 30 days.
She was encouraged to get legal help and became the first known Black woman in Canada to challenge racial segregation. Although she didn’t win, there was so much publicity Nova Scotia had to throw out its segregation laws in 1954.
Unfortunately, the incident negatively affected Viola. She went through a divorce, shut down her business and moved to Montreal and then New York to start fresh and look for new opportunities. Sadly she died in 1965, but her sister, Wanda Robinson, took up the cause to clear her sister’s name and Viola finally posthumously received a pardon 63 years later which was granted by Mayann Frances, Nova Scotia’s first black Lieutenant Governor.
The ferry from Halifax to Dartmouth will be renamed The Viola Desmond Ferry in her honour.