Just a quick post regarding a figure not many of you know about, and I admit I was unfamiliar with her until this week, but whose story is perfect for this month, Black History Month. Canada may be considered a paragon of harmony and respect among cultures and races, but that nation still has stories of those withstanding systemic segregation or other actions based on their color or ethnicity. Such is the story of Viola Irene Desmond, who by 1946 became a successful businesswoman in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Desmond saw a need for hair and skincare needs for black women in the Halifax area, and would start her own cosmetic studio and beauty school as well as her her own line of beauty products — in the process empowering other students and other black women by passing along her knowledge of beauty and business.
The incident Viola Desmond is known for occurred in November 1946 while on a trip delivering her products to beauty studios outside of Halifax. Car trouble forced her to stop off in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, and while waiting for her car to be repaired, Viola decided to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She sat herself down in the theater’s main section, asking for the lower level seat in order to see the film clearly (an upper level seat, one further back from the screen, would be inconvenient due to her nearsightedness). She didn’t know, however, that the Roseland was segregated. (Laws in Nova Scotia did not require racial segregation, but it allowed businesses such as theaters to segregate if they chose to do so.) This led to an usher and later the theater manager asking Viola to relocate to the upper level, the only portion of the theater where blacks were permitted to sit. Viola refused to leave her seat, and was forced to spend the night in jail.
The next day, after being charged and convicted in court, Viola paid a $20 fine (equivalent to about $271 in today’s money) plus court costs and returned to Halifax. Though her husband advised her to put the incident behind her, she took the advice of her minister at her church and fought the charge in court. In a judicial review, the government prevailed, arguing that it was a case not of violating one’s rights but of tax evasion: The lower level seating was more expensive (and thus had a higher tax rate, albeit by one cent) than the upper level seating the theater only agreed to sell to Viola.
At least Viola’s attorney made an effort to represent and support his client, and refused to bill her after the case, donating instead any fees to the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Viola’s conviction remained on the books until 2010, when Nova Scotia’s Lieutenant Governor, on the advice of the province’s premier, invoked Royal Prerogative and granted Desmond a free pardon, which is rare and used in extraordinary circumstances. The free pardon, granted over 63 years after the incident, was the first to be granted posthumously (Viola Desmond died in 1965).
Viola Desmond’s stand against racial segregation has already been recounted in not one but two documentary films; a children’s book; another book, written by her sister; official recognition by the province on the first Nova Scotia Heritage Day holiday in 2015; and even a song. She has also been portrayed on a commemorative stamp issued by Canada Post in 2014. And just this week, Viola’s story has been dramatized in a truly Canadian way, via the Heritage Minute. For the unfamiliar, Heritage Minutes are one-minute vignettes that dramatize notable people and events in Canadian history; they are produced by Historica Canada, a charitable organization whose aim is to promote Canadian history and citizenship. The subjects of Heritage Minutes have been wide ranging; they have depicted artists, prairie settlers, figures of government, and even a certain baseball player famous for breaking an infamous barrier — Jackie Robinson, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ top minor league team in Montreal one year before making history with the big league club. Viola’s Heritage Minute dramatizes the incident in New Glasgow, her time in jail, and her wanting to “make it right;” it also succinctly gives background on Viola and her reasons for the stand she took. I’ve embedded the video at the end of this blog post, although you can also access it here on the Historica Canada website. (There’s also a behind-the-scenes video here.)
Feel free to check out a bio and background on Viola Desmond on the Nova Scotia Archives website. Also of note is an enlightening article on Huffington Post by the actress who plays Viola Desmond in the Heritage Minute, Kandyse McClure. McClure, who is best known for roles on Battlestar Galactica and Hemlock Grove, compares in her op-ed the forms of racism here in North America with that in her native South Africa. She also discusses the “intersection” (her word) of her life as an actress with Viola’s life and that of another noteworthy Viola — Viola Davis, who last year broke another noteworthy barrier by becoming the first actress of color to earn the Emmy for outstanding actress in a lead dramatic series role.