Viola Desmond

 
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You've heard the story of how Rosa Parks, sparked the US Civil Rights movement in 1955 by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man? Well, get ready to meet Canada's Rosa Parks, who stood up to the injustices of racial segregation 10 years before...

In June 1945, Canada joined 49 other national governments to sign the Charter of the United Nations (UN). Established after World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany, the UN was established with the aim of preventing another such conflict by promoting international cooperation and order.

The UN Charter is the foundational document of the now famous intergovernmental institution. It responded to the genocide fueled by Hitler’s racist ideology of Aryan supremacy by articulating a commitment among member nations to uphold human rights “for all,” irrespective of race, gender, language, or religion. 

Yet in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, hundreds of thousands of black citizens lived in slums and suffered intense discrimination within a legally sanctioned system of segregation not unlike that which was alive and well in the deep south of it's southern neighbor: the United “Jim Crow” States.

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1914, Viola Desmond dreamed of setting up a beauty salon just for black women. Growing up, she couldn’t help but notice that advertisements for hair products targeted only whites. Yet when Viola became old enough to obtain higher education, she discovered that no beauty school in Nova Scotia would admit her. Only white women were allowed.

 (COURTESY NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES/FLICKR CC)

(COURTESY NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES/FLICKR CC)

Viola refused to give up. She traveled to Montreal and New York, where she received training as a beautician. Returning to Halifax, she opened the first black hair salon for women in Nova Scotia. Soon, there were many salons but Viola was not yet satisfied. She wished to help other black women avoid the discrimination she’d faced, and so she opened the Desmond School of Beauty Culture. The Desmond School focused on developing business as well as beautician skills. Within a few years, Desmond graduates were providing jobs for black women all over Nova Scotia and beyond, aiding the Canadian economy. Viola even found the time to create and market her own line of hair products for black women, entitled Vi's Beauty Products.

On November 8, 1946, Viola drove to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, on a marketing trip for Vi's Beauty Products. While in town, her car broke down. She was informed that replacement parts would not be available until the next day. That evening, to pass the time, she took herself to the movies.

She bought a ticket at the local Roseland Theatre. While there was no sign saying, "whites only," Viola was sold a cheap "balcony" ticket instead of a floor seat. She then informed the usher that she was far-sighted and asked to sit near the screen. Once sat on the floor, however, the manager approached her and told her to move.

At first, she was confused. Then she realized what was happening: Floor seats were for whites only; blacks had to sit separate and apart at the back.

Viola refused to budge. She’d bought her ticket and she was very happy with her seat, thank you very much.

 
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The manager called the police. A local police officer dragged Viola from her seat by force and carried her out of the theater. Her hip was bruised in the assault. She was put in jail overnight.

Since segregation was not formal under Canadian law, Viola was charged with tax evasion. The balcony ticket she had been sold had a 2-cent tax, while floor seats carried a 3-cent tax. Viola was guilty, therefore, of owing the government a penny in unpaid taxes. Viola was fined $20. 

Now the victim of racist cultural policy hidden behind an absurd legal farce, Viola decided to fight the fine. She hired a lawyer with the help of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP). They sued the Roseland Theatre on the grounds Viola Desmond had been discriminated against because of her race. 

But the Nova Scotia Supreme Court wasn’t sympathetic. It rejected Viola's case. The accusation of tax evasion held, and de facto segregation remained legal in Canada.

Viola's challenge against racism galvanized Canada's black community, however. It was one abuse too many. As one black leader put it, "neither before or since has there been such an aggressive effort to obtain rights. The people arose as one and with one voice." 

The time had come to hold the government accountable for the commitment it made as a signatory to the UN Charter. By the 1950s, racism in private business and education were national issues. In 1965, the last segregated school closed in Canada. That same year, Viola passed away of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at the age of 50.

Sixty-four years after Viola’s act of protest at the Roseland Theatre, the Canadian government formally pardoned her for tax evasion. Mayann Francis, the first black woman to serve as Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, had the honor of affirming Viola's innocence in the presence of our hero’s 84-year-old sister. Then, in 2018, Viola became the first Canadian woman of any color to appear on the $10 bill, cementing her transformation from public menace to leader in the fight for racial equality and freedom. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero this Woman's History Month 2018. Thanks to Lindsay Fancy of Halifax, Nova Scotia for nominating Viola and for bringing her story to our attention.

 

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