Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Barack Obama… recognize any of these names? I am sure you do.
How about these? Marie-Joseph Angélique, Rosemary Brown, Lincoln Alexander. Perhaps these names aren’t as heard of.
The only difference between the two sets of names is that the second group are historic black Canadians, as opposed to Americans in the first group. Growing up beside a superpower, our culture and identity is often intermixed with the United States. In some cases, this unfortunately casts a shadow on some iconic figures in Canada’s black history. Today, I want to share a quick story about a black Canadian that is important to me.
Viola Irene Desmond. A businesswoman, civil rights activist, teacher, sister, leader, the list can go on. Born in Halifax in 1914, Viola was a sister to 9 other siblings, and a daughter to James and Gwendolin Davis. Motivated by her parents' hard work in their community involvement, Viola Demond aspired to be an independent business woman. After teaching in two racially segregated schools for black students, she left to Ontario to study at one of the few institutions in Canada that accepted Black applicants at the time; the Field Beauty Culture School in Montreal. After continuing her training in the U.S., Desmond returned to Halifax to open Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture, catering to the Black community.
During this time in the early 20th century, beauty parlours became a ‘centre of social contact’ within the Black community, and shop owners achieved a position of status and authority. As a way of giving back to her community, Desmond created a line of cosmetics for people with darker complexions. However, the racist practice of segregation was manifested in her daily life.
One particular day led to her being an iconic historical figure in canadian civil rights and black history. Viola Desmond went to watch a film at the Roseland Theatre, and she chose to sit on the main floor (instead of the balcony) as her eyesight was poor and she wanted a closer seat. As the movie began, she was interrupted by a worker, informing her that she was not allowed to sit on the main floor. She went to the ticket counter to purchase a ticket specifically for the main floor, but the ticket seller told her “We don’t sell tickets on the main floor to you people.” Frustrated, Viola returned to her main floor seat and continued to watch the movie, but the manager approached her and told her to leave or he would call the police. Sure enough, the police arrived and Viola was dragged out of the theatre. The next day she was taken to court without a lawyer, so she had to argue for herself. She was found guilty and charged with tax evasion for failing to pay the full tax on a main-floor movie ticket. The difference accounted to only 1 cent.
Frustrated, and not willing to go down easily, Viola Desmond decided to appeal her conviction and it was eventually brought to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. She ultimately lost her appeal, however, her stand against racial injustice sparked a movement in Nova Scotia’s Black community, helping inspire Canada’s civil rights movement. In 1954, the province finally removed their laws that made it legal to treat black people differently than white people. Unfortunately, this entire process took a major toll on Desmond’s personal life; she ended her marriage, closed her business, and eventually passed away in New York in 1965 from medical complications. She is buried at Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Desmond’s justice was officially recognized in 2010, when the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia pardoned her and removed her conviction from the historical record. In 2018, she became the first woman to be featured on a regularly circulating $10 bill. She has also had her own Heritage Moment (that you can watch online!) and even has a ferryboat in Halifax named in her honour. Desmond is often compared to Rosa Parks, as they both challenged racism by refusing to leave “Whites Only seats, contributing to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.
The legacy of Viola Desmond reminds Canadians of our dark history involving racism, segregation, and injustice towards people of colour within this country. It is important to note that just because laws have changed, it does not mean that certain stigmas or prejudices towards Black people have changed as well. I encourage everyone from all backgrounds to learn more about the history of Canada, and the contributions of people of colour, both past and present. Lifting POC voices, not only during Black History Month, but at any time, is crucial to moving forward towards equity and justice. Happy Black History Month!