July 6, 1914
Halifax, Nova Scotia
|Died||February 7, 1965
New York, New York
|Education||Bloomfield High School|
Viola Davis Desmond (July 6, 1914 – February 7, 1965) was a Black Nova Scotian business woman who challenged racial segregation at a film theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946. She refused to leave a whites-only area of the Roseland Theatre and was unjustly convicted of a minor tax violation used to enforce segregation. Desmond's case was one of the most publicized incidents of racial discrimination in Canadian history and helped start resistance to segregation in Nova Scotia. Desmond acted nine years before the famed incident by civil-rights activist Rosa Parks, with whom Desmond is often compared. Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon, the first to be granted in Canada. The government of Nova Scotia also apologized for convicting her for tax evasion, when, in fact, she was resisting a "whites only" discrimination policy.
Viola Desmond (maiden name Davis) was born on July 6, 1914, one of fifteen children born to James and Gwendolyn Davis. Viola grew up with parents who were active in the Black community in Halifax, and were members of social circles such as the Criterion Club.
Being of African descent, Viola Desmond was not allowed to train to become a beautician in Halifax, so she left and received beautician training in Montreal, Atlantic City, and one of Madame C.J. Walker's beauty schools in New York. Upon finishing her training, Viola Desmond returned to Halifax to start her own hair salon. Her clients included Portia White and a young Gwen Jenkins, later the first black nurse in Nova Scotia. In addition, Viola Desmond set up a beauty school in Halifax, The Desmond School of Beauty Culture, so that Black women would not have to travel as far as she did to receive proper training. She also started her own line of beauty products, Vi's Beauty Products which she marketed and sold herself.
Viola Desmond joined her husband Jack Desmond in a combined barbershop and hairdressing salon, a beauty parlour on Gottingen Street. While on a business trip to sell her beauty products, Viola went to New Glasgow in 1946. While driving through New Glasgow on November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond's car broke down and she was told that she would have to wait a day before the parts to fix it became available. To pass the time while waiting, she went to see a movie at New Glasgow's Roseland Film Theatre. She bought a ticket, asking for a seat on the main floor. As she took a seat on the main floor, she was told by the manager that she did not have the ticket for that seat. She returned to the ticket booth, where she was informed that it was against their policy to give a main seat ticket to a black person. Desmond returned to the main floor and refused to sit in the balcony designated exclusively for blacks in the segregated Roseland Theatre. She was forcibly removed from the theatre and injured in the process, and arrested. She was kept in jail overnight, and was never informed about her right to legal advice, a lawyer, or bail.
Desmond was eventually found guilty of not paying the one-cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket from the main floor theatre ticket. She was fined C$20 (252.99 in 2013) and court costs of $6. She paid the fine and returned to Halifax. Upon returning she discussed the matter with her husband, and his advice was to let it go. However when she sought advice from the leaders of the Baptist church she attended, Pearline and Will Oliver, they encouraged her to take action. With their support, Desmond decided to fight the charge in court.
Following the decision to fight the charge, the Clarion, a newspaper devoted to exposing injustice and racism, ran a front page story supporting Viola Desmond.
With the help of her church and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) Desmond hired a lawyer, Frederick Bissett, who represented her in the criminal trials and attempted, unsuccessfully, to file a lawsuit against the Roseland Theatre.
During subsequent trials the government insisted on arguing that this was a case of tax evasion. Retail sales tax was calculated based on the price of the theatre ticket. Since the theatre would only agree to sell the Black woman a cheaper balcony ticket, but she had insisted upon sitting in the more expensive main floor seat, she was one cent short on tax; tax evasion was the reason for her being removed from the theatre, jailed overnight, tried without counsel, convicted and fined. During the trial there was no reference to Viola Desmond being Black, and the theatre maintaining a racist seating policy; the trial proceeded as if it related only to tax evasion. Bissett tried to appeal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, but they upheld the conviction.
Her lawyer returned her fee, which she used to set up a fund that was eventually used to support activities of the NSAACP, which had supported her through her trials.
After the trial, Desmond closed her business and moved to Montreal where she could enroll in a business college. She eventually settled in New York, USA where she died on February 7, 1965 at the age of 50. She is buried at Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax.
While the case originally received little attention outside Nova Scotia at the time, it since gained notoriety as one of many cases fought for civil rights in the mid-20th century. Desmond's case ultimately led to the elimination of segregation in Nova Scotia.
In 2000 Desmond and other Canadian civil rights activists were the subject of a National Film Board of Canada documentary Journey to Justice. In 2012 she was portrayed on a commemorative stamp issued by Canada Post.
On April 14, 2010, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Mayann Francis, on the advice of her premier, invoked the Royal Prerogative and granted Desmond a posthumous free pardon, the first such to be granted in Canada. The free pardon, an extraordinary remedy granted under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy only in the rarest of circumstances and the first one granted posthumously, differs from a simple pardon in that it is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was in error. The government of Nova Scotia also apologised. This was largely because of actions taken by Desmond's younger sister Wanda Robson, and a professor of Cape Breton University, Graham Reynolds, to ensure that Desmond's name was cleared and the government admitted its error.
Since her death tributes were paid to Viola Desmond as an important figure in the Canadian civil rights movement. A documentary film was made about her, entitled Long Road to Justice: The Viola Desmond Story, and she was the subject of a children's book Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner, and a song named for her by Faith Nolan.
Cape Breton University established a scholarship campaign in the names of Viola Desmond and Wanda Robson, and named a Chair in Social Justice after Desmond.
Desmond's portrait hangs in Government House in Halifax, Nova Scotia, her home town. Her sister Wanda Robson wrote a book about activism in her family and her experiences with her sister, titled Sister to Courage
Viola Desmond's story is often used during Black History Month and is included in the curriculum across Canada and used as a case study and example to teach children about racism, civil rights, and prejudice in Canada.
- Carlson, Kathryn Blaze (April 14, 2010). "'Canada's Rosa Parks,' Viola Desmond, posthumously pardoned". National Post. Archived from the original on August 26, 2010. Retrieved April 14, 2010.
- "Late Viola Desmond Granted Apology, Free Pardon". NovaScotia, Canada. April 15, 2010. Retrieved May 1, 2014.
- "N.S. apologizes for 1946 conviction". Winnipeg Sun. April 15, 2010. Retrieved April 17, 2010.
- Constance Backhouse (1999). "Colour-Coded". Colour-coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950. University of Toronto Press. p. 240. ISBN 978-0-8020-8286-2.
- Viola Desmond in The Canadian Encyclopedia
- "Long Road to Justice - The Viola Desmond Story (Full Documentary)". YouTube. 2012-02-06. Retrieved 2014-03-14.
- Inflation Calculator - Bank of Canada
- Barrington Walker (2012). The African Canadian Legal Odyssey: Historical Essays. University of Toronto Press. p. 136. ISBN 978-1-4426-4689-6.
- "Viola Desmond 1st Nova Scotian honoured on new holiday". CBC News. 2014-02-17. Retrieved 2014-02-27.
- Roger McTair, director (2000). Journey to Justice. National Film Board of Canada.
- "Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged". House of Anansi. 2010-04-15. Retrieved 2014-03-14.
- "Music". faithnolan.org. Retrieved 2014-03-14.
- "Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice". Cape Breton University - Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. 2011-02-28. Retrieved 2014-03-14.
- Wanda Robson; Ronald Caplan (August 11, 2010). Sister to Courage: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Canada's Rosa Parks. Breton Books. ISBN 9781895415346. Retrieved 2014-03-14.
- The King v Desmond (1947), 20 M.P.R. 297 (N.S.S.C.), at 299–301
- Obituary in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 10 February 1965, p. 26
- Maritime Magazine's Tribute Viola Desmond Feb 2006 at the Wayback Machine (archived October 25, 2012)
- Viola Desmond, biography
- National Post[dead link]
- April 2010 article on GlobalComment.com