Continuing with our series of Black History Month, allow me to introduce you to Viola Davis Desmond, a woman who suffered over something so simple and by doing so, helped in the fight for human rights in Canada.
Ms. Desmond was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1914. A businesswoman, she ran her own beauty parlor and beauty college. On November 8, 1946, while waiting for her car to be fixed at a garage across the street, she decided to go see a movie in the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow. She refused to sit in the balcony, which was designated exclusively for Blacks. Instead, she sat on the ground floor, which was for Whites only. She was forcibly removed and arrested. Viola was found guilty of not paying the one-cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and paid a $26 fine, that’s approximately $251.30 in 2010!
The trial that followed, mainly focused on the issue of tax evasion. Dissatisfied with the verdict, the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, with Viola’s help, took the case to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. The conviction was upheld.
Desmond acted nine years before the famed incident by civil-rights activist Rosa Parks, with whom Desmond is often compared.
After the trial, Desmond closed her business and then moved to Montreal where she could enroll in a business college. She eventually settled in New York where she died on February 7, 1965 at the age of 50.
On April 15, 2010, the province of Nova Scotia granted an official apology and a free pardon to Viola. Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis, the first black person to serve as the Queen’s representative in the province of Nova Scotia, presided. Viola’s 83-year-old sister, Wanda Robson, was there to accept the apology. Premier Darrell Dexter also apologized to Viola’s family and all black Nova Scotians for the racism she was subjected to in an incident he called unjust.
In 2000, Desmond and other Canadian civil rights activists were the subject of a National Film Board of Canada documentary Journey to Justice.