Who Was Viola Desmond?

Every once in a while I come across an event or a person I’ve never heard of. Most of the time it’s because they’re from a part of the world or a time period I just haven’t studied much. But sometimes I don’t know why or how I never managed to run across this person or event. That’s the case with Viola Desmond (née Davis.)

Who was Viola Desmond?

Viola Desmond was a hairdresser, beautician, and businesswoman. Modeling herself after Madam CJ Walker, she built a thriving beauty supply business and beauty school in her hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was biracial, one of ten children born to a black father and white mother. Her parents were active members of the community and raised Viola and her siblings to be ambitious.

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A tin of face powder from Viola’s line of beauty supplies. Image via CBC and Nova Scotia Archives.

On November 8, 1946, 32-year-old Viola was headed to Sydney, Nova Scotia for business. About halfway through the nearly four and a half hour drive, her car broke down. Stranded in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, knowing she’d have to wait overnight for her car to be fixed, she decided to see a movie. She headed to the Roseland Theater, a landmark in New Glasgow, and purchased a ticket. After handing the ticket-seller $1, she received seventy cents and a balcony ticket in exchange.

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Viola Desmond. Image via CBC and Wanda Robson.

Viola entered the theater, presented her ticket to the ticket-taker and continued into the main seating area. The ticket-taker, Prima Davis shouted that her ticket was an upstairs ticket and that’s where she’d need to go. Viola returned to the ticket counter, explained the situation, and claimed that there must be some mistake. She hadn’t ordered a balcony ticket. She offered to pay the ten cents difference in the ticket prices.

The ticket-seller, Peggy Melanson, simply replied, “I’m sorry, but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.

Viola immediately recognized that she was being forced to sit in the balcony because of her race.

She turned and reentered the theater, silently walking to the only partially full main seating area. She quietly took a seat, waiting for the movie to start. Prima Davis followed her into the theater and said, “I told you to go upstairs.”

Viola remained seated.

Prima left and returned with a manager, Harry MacNeil, who threatened to have her removed. The theater had a policy that allowed them to deny service to “any objectionable person.” Viola calmly pointed out that she hadn’t been denied service, she had just been denied a downstairs ticket. She wasn’t making a scene and didn’t believe they could, or would, legally kick her out of the theater.

MacNeil left, irate, and returned with a police officer. Again, Viola told them that she only wanted to sit in the main seating area. She couldn’t see well from the balcony. The officer grabbed Viola by the shoulders while MacNeil grabbed her legs and together, they dragged her to the lobby. She lost her purse and a shoe in the process. When they stopped in the lobby, a bystander brought her her purse and the officer allowed her to get her shoe. Then she was put into a waiting taxi and taken to the police station. About an hour later, MacNeil and the Chief of Police, Elmo C. Langille, returned to the station with a warrant for Viola’s arrest.

She was taken to the town jail where she was held for twelve hours…in a cell with men. They kept bringing more men in as the night progressed. Viola later recounted, “The matron was very nice and she seemed to realize that I shouldn’t have been there.”

Viola Desmond on Trial

The next morning, Viola was brought in front of the town magistrate, Roderick Geddes, McKay. She had not been briefed of her rights, had no lawyer, and there was no Crown attorney (government prosecutor in the Canadian legal system) present. She was charged with violating the provincial Theatres, Cinematographs, and Amusement Act. While that act had no clauses related to racial segregation, it did state that patrons would pay an amusement tax on any tickets purchased in provincial theaters, such as the Roseland.

Viola’s ticket, the balcony ticket, cost 30¢. The main floor ticket cost 40¢. They claimed that Viola had paid 30¢ for a 40¢ ticket, making her 1¢ short on the amusement tax. The witnesses testified that she knowingly purchased a balcony ticket and then took a seat in the main seating area. Viola was asked if she had any questions and she later recounted that she didn’t realize they meant questions for the witnesses. She was being asked to perform a cross-examination in undeniably vague terms with no lawyer on her side. When she took the stand, she testified that she offered to pay the difference but was told they wouldn’t allow that. You’ll remember that she had initially given the ticket-taker $1, plenty to cover a floor ticket in the first place.

At the end of the trial, Viola was found guilty and fined $26: $20 was the minimum fine for this offense and the other $6 went to Harry MacNeil, who was listed as the prosecutor in the case. To put it another way: she had to pay the theater manager who helped drag her out of her seat and obtained a warrant for her arrest.

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Viola Desmond on the front page of The Clarion, December 1946. Image via The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Viola, with the support of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), appealed the verdict. She lost the appeal but the judge conceded that it wasn’t about that 1¢, it was about unspoken segregation “laws” in the province. He stated, “One wonders if the manager of the theatre who laid the complaint was so zealous because of a bona fide belief there had been an attempt to defraud the Province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavour to enforce Jim Crow rule by misuse of a public statute.”

It was an unbelievable use of a loophole to prosecute someone based on the color of their skin.

The case garnered a lot of attention, much of it negative, which weighed heavily on Viola. She divorced her husband, shut down her businesses, and moved to Montreal, Quebec. She eventually left Canada and relocated to New York City where she died in 1965 at the age of 50.

In 1954, Nova Scotia abolished the province’s segregation laws. But we know that just because something is off the books doesn’t mean that it stopped happening. While segregation was no longer legal, Nova Scotians continued to fight for equality.

In the meantime, Viola and her story all but faded away.

Viola Desmond Gets Recognition

In 2000, Viola was the subject of the documentary Long Road to Freedom: The Viola Desmond Story.

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Viola (right) and her sister, Wanda. Circa 1950. Photo via CBC and Wanda Robson.

Still, it wasn’t until the 21st century that her name and story became known again, thanks to the work of her sister, Wanda Robson. In 2010, Wanda wrote a book about Viola, Sister to Courageand travels around Canada to speak about her sister. Thanks to Wanda’s work, Viola was granted a posthumous apology and pardon by the Canadian government in 2010.

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Wanda Robson and then-Lt. Governor of Nova Scotia Mayann Francis hold hands as the province formally pardons Viola. Image via CBC News.

In 2012, the Canadian Post released a Viola Desmond stamp.

In 2014, Nova Scotia honored her on a new holiday.

Also in 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights included an exhibit about Viola in their “Canadian Journeys” gallery.

In 2015, community members in Halifax erected an outdoor movie screen in her honor. The project was spearheaded by Hope Blooms, an organization that helps at-risk youth.

And in 2016, it was announced that Viola would be the first Canadian woman to appear on the Canadian ten-dollar note.

She is often called the “Canada’s Rosa Parks”, which I think is unfair. Not only because Viola’s act of peaceful defiance came nearly a decade before Rosa’s but because we don’t need to compare the two. Yes, they made their mark in similar ways but both are worth acknowledgment. Calling her “Canadian Rosa Parks” erases her name again. Don’t erase it. She deserves to have her story told and her bravery recognized.


Sources
Colour-coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse, Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History
So Seldom for Us, So Often Against Us: Blacks and Law in Canada by Esmeralda M. A. Thornhill
The story of Viola Desmond, “Canada’s Rosa Parks” from CBS News
How civil rights icon Viola Desmond helped change course of Canadian history by CBC News
And while I didn’t use it as a source, I found this lovely children’s book about Viola’s case, Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged.


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