Viola Desmond-The Rosa Parks of Canada
“Well behaved women seldom make history.”
Women’s history month celebrates the contributions of women all across the world. Through stories of historical events we learn the trials and tribulations women faced in society both past and present. How do women make history? Many women have made history by taking a stand, marching, advocating. There are those women who have chosen to sit for equality. History has told us the story of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, becoming one of the leading icons of the civil rights movement. A decade before Rosa Parks, Viola Desmond refused to sit in the colored people section at a Cinema. For women’s history month we honor the life and legacy of Viola Desmond, The Rosa Parks of Canada.
Viola Desmond was born July 6, 1914 in Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada. Growing up Viola’s parents James & Gwendolyn Davis instilled in her and her siblings the value of hard work and giving backing to the community, as they were active and prominent members of various community organizations. After teaching for a short period of time, Viola made the transition to entrepreneurship. Upon completing her training and education the Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture salon was opened in Halifax. Seeing the lack of opportunities in the community, she opened the Desmond School of Beauty Culture providing training and career growth opportunities for black women. The creation of a line of beauty products expanded her business.
Viola would began to travel outside of her hometown delivering products and conducting business. Driving to a business meeting in Sydney Nova Scotia car issues arose, resulting in the businesswoman having to take a detour and stop in New Glasgow. Due to part unavailability the car the mechanic was unable to service Viola’s vehicle. This required to stay overnight in town until the car part arrived the next day. Making the most of her unplanned trip Viola decided to go see at movie at Roseland Theatre. During this time period the world will still very black and white with segregation. The cinema had a policy it could not sell to blacks to sit on the main floor of the theater. Unaware of this Viola asked to purchase a ticket for the main floor., but the ticket seller gave her ticket for balcony sitting, as the balcony was reserved for non-white customers. Having entering the main floor to see the show, she was approached by one of the workers who informed her ticket was upstairs balcony & needed to move. Wanting to sit on the main floor, she returned to the ticket booth and requested a ticket exchange. She was denied by the ticket seller, who has been quoted as saying “I’m sorry, but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.” You people referring to colored people implied tickets were not being sold to blacks due to color of their skin.
Becoming a rebel and refusing to sit in the balcony, Viola return to the theater taking a seat on the main floor. The situation escalated even further when the theater manager Henry MacNeil confronted Viola implying the business had the right to refuse admission to any objectionable person. The Canadian business woman felt she was not wrong as she tried to pay the difference in ticket. Matters got worse as she was publicly humiliated and injured as she was dragged out of the movie theater by an officer.
The Right to a Fair Trial
A life changing moment for Viola as she found herself locked in a jail cell. With no social media there was no viral moment for the world to see how a woman just wanting to enjoy some evening entertainment, was wrongly convicted on tax evasion based on allegations of refusing to pay amusement tax as it was the difference in tax between upstairs and downstairs ticket prices. It should be no surprise that the legal system failed Viola Desmond as she was not informed of her rights and was provided no counsel. How crazy it was that the movie theater manager was the prosecutor in the trial and was awarded $6 out of the $26 she was fined in court.
No Justice No Peace
Interestingly enough Desmond husband grew up in New Glasgow but failed inform his wife of the racism within the county. Not wanting to fight the issue he recommended that the issue be “taken to the Lord with a prayer.” Community members felt a different course of action was necessary as this was needed. With the funds raised from the NAACP, the next step was to fight the conviction. The doctor who examined Viola for her injuries advise her to hire a lawyer. Frederick Bissett a white lawyer took on the case establishing a civil suit in which the manager and the business had acted unlawfully as they removed her from theater entitling the plaintiff to compensation for assault, false imprisonment. The case never made it trial and the supreme court did not overturn the conviction due to politics of the system and how the appeal should have been first reviewed in the county court. It is believed that the outcome of how things played out led to her relocating to Montreal & later relocating to New York City until she died at the young age of 50.
Righting a Wrong
It was during a college course of history of Race relations on Nova Scotia taught by Dr. Graham Reynolds where he shared Viola Desmond story. One of the students in the class was Viola Desmond sister Wanda Robson who was enrolled in the course at Cape Breton University. While the university had textbook history, Wanda had the oral history of her sister. Dr. Reynolds and Ms. Robson collaborated with the mission to tell her sisters story. More importantly to repair her sisters legacy.
Justice is a marathon, as decades later Viola Desmond was granted a free pardon and public apology on April 15, 2010. In addition to the pardon a postage stamping bearing Viola image was granted. When you look at $10 Canada banknote you will see Viola Desmond depicted on Canadian currency, making history as the first black person.
History tells the legacy of those from the past. We will not know who tells our story, but we must leave a story to be told. To all the phenomenal women across the world stay the path, as one day you too will be a part of women’s history.
A Different Black History, Black History, Cape Breton University, Civil Rights Leader, Civil Rights Movement, Madame CJ Walker, Nova Scotia Canada, Rosa Parks, The Coin: Black History on the Other Side, Viola Desmond, Women's History Month