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Black History Month: The Story of Viola Desmond

Saturday, February 4, 2017
Viola Desmond. Photo: courtesy of Joe and Wanda Robson.

These days, it seems like everyone is talking about Viola Desmond. She’s been on a postage stamp. She’s had her own Heritage Minute and we named her as one of five women who should be household names in Canada. She’s even had a ferryboat in Halifax, Nova Scotia, named after her. Last but not least, starting in 2018, she is going to be the first Canadian woman to be featured on a regularly circulating Canadian ten-dollar bill – but her name has not been well known for very long. For many years, few Canadians knew Viola Desmond’s story and the pivotal role she played in our country’s past.

Viola Desmond walked into Canadian history on November 8, 1946, when she refused to sit in the balcony section – where Black patrons were expected to sit – of New Glasgow’s Roseland Theatre. Desmond, a Black beautician and entrepreneur from Halifax, was dragged from the theatre by a white police officer and forced to spend the night in prison. The next day she was brought before a judge and charged with failing to pay the full amusement tax charged on tickets – a difference in tax that amounted to one cent. In reality, the tax charge was a red herring; the real reason Desmond had been arrested and charged was that she had insisted on sitting in the “whites-only” main-floor section of the movie theatre. In fact, the cashier had refused to sell her a main-floor ticket, saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.”

When people talk about segregation (the enforced separation of racial groups), they usually refer only to the United States. However, segregation happened in Canada as well – it was just less formal. In America, many states passed laws officially entrenching racial segregation. In Canada, there were no such laws. Instead, businesses such as shops, theatres and restaurants quietly practiced informal segregation. Whenever individuals challenged those practices, courts simply used existing laws to legitimize segregation, which was exactly what happened to Viola Desmond.

After Desmond returned to Halifax, her doctor, Dr. A. E. Waddell, advised her to get a lawyer – and she decided to fight her conviction. The Black community was mixed in its support, though some did raise funds and back her demands to end segregation practices. Sadly, Desmond lost her appeal – the Supreme Court refused to see the case as a racial justice issue. However, one of the justices – Justice W. L. Hall – did comment: “One wonders if the manager of the theatre who laid the complaint was so zealous because of a bona fide belief there had been an attempt to defraud the Province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavor to enforce a Jim Crow rule by misuse of a public statute.”

Despite the defeat, Desmond’s stand had galvanized Nova Scotia’s Black community, which was now more determined than ever to fight for their rights. The lawyer who had defended Desmond donated his fee to the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NSAACP), which used the funds to finance a number of successful campaigns for integration within the workplace.   

Desmond’s younger sister Wanda Robson, who is now 90 years old, remembers that after the trial, Desmond was approached by the NSAACP, who asked her to continue working as a spokesperson for the cause. Desmond, however, wanted to move on with her life and declined the request. As well, she had obligations to a large class in her beauty school that was to graduate the next spring. Moving on with life proved difficult, as her marriage ended and she ultimately decided to abandon her business in Nova Scotia and move to Montréal. She passed away in 1965 in New York City. 

It would still be many years before Viola Desmond became a household name in Canada. Her sister Robson remembers exactly when she realized Desmond had become an important part of Canadian history. In an interview, she told me she’s a little embarrassed to admit how she found out:

“Didn’t realize it until I went to university,” she explained. At 73, Robson decided to audit a class about racial justice in Canada – and was shocked to learn her sister was an important part of the story. “I was there the second day of my class and there he [Professor Reynolds] had a clip – Journey to justice, I believe it was called – and there he put up my sister’s picture, saying ‘This young woman…’ and I said, ‘Oh! That’s my sister!’ – And he said, ‘I can’t believe it!’”

Discovering her sister’s story in a university classroom inspired Robson to embark on some new adventures in her life. She decided to become a full-time student and completed her Bachelor of Arts degree at the Cape Breton University, graduating in 2004 at the age of 76. At the same time, Robson began to share her sister’s story by speaking about it at public events at the university, in schools, at police stations and elsewhere.

In 2009, encouraged by a CBC reporter, Robson decided to write to the Mayor of New Glasgow, asking if there could be a historic plaque or marker placed to commemorate what happened to her sister. The response surpassed anything she had expected.

“It all just snowballed… the next thing you know, I’m in Halifax, in Province House [Nova Scotia House of Assembly], where the Lieutenant-Governor – at that time Her Honour Mayann Francis – had a pardon for Viola! I’ll never forget that… I thought if only my parents could see this, they would be so overjoyed. In New Glasgow, they had a bench commemorated to Viola – there is also an interpretive panel near the library – and she has her portrait hanging in Province House in Halifax.”

Robson was also thrilled to visit the Museum’s exhibit on Viola Desmond. She told me she loved how it was set up to replicate a 1940s-style movie theatre where visitors could sit and learn Desmond’s story.

 

Wanda Robson sits in a chair and smiles. Behind her is a black and white image of patrons sitting in a movie theatre.
Wanda Robson visits her sister’s exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on October 27, 2014. Photo: Lyle Stafford/CMHR

 

Most recently, Robson was very excited to learn her sister was chosen to be on the ten-dollar bill. “To be nominated with all these women – scientists, explorers, painters – I said, okay that’s it, she’s been nominated. That’s something we can talk about as a family and write about. But to have been actually selected! I was never so proud and so pleased. When anyone asks me, ‘how did you feel?’ I have run out of superlatives, I have run out of everything… I’d like to ask you, where can she go from here?”

When asked about the significance of Viola Desmond’s story to Canadians today, Robson is very philosophical. “I’ve seen what happened, I’ve seen what can happen to a minority.” Robson remembers growing up under segregation in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She told me how, in the late 1960s, she was refused service at a Halifax hair salon with the words “We don’t do you people.” She also told me how racism made it difficult for her to find an apartment to rent. She doesn’t want youth of today to have to experience discrimination like this.

Robson firmly believes that her sister’s story can help a new generation learn about the importance of combatting racism. She believes it lies with youth to end racism and discrimination. She told me: “The young people themselves, they’re the ones who are going to be our salvation. It’s very difficult – it’s not going to end suddenly…it’s going to take a while.”

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights has an exhibit about Viola Desmond’s struggle for justice located in the Canadian Journeys gallery. This blog post was written in part using research conducted by Mallory Richard, who worked at the Museum as both a researcher and a project coordinator.