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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Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Part Two

For part one, click here!

When we left Lizzie, she had just purchased her freedom for the second time. Since the money had been given to her by many of her clients in St. Louis, she considered it a loan and immediately got to work to pay it back. Of course, she quickly made the money to pay back the St. Louis ladies.

Something else was bothering her, though. Her husband, James. He was still not a companion or helpmate, but a burden. She later wrote, “He was rapidly debasing himself, and although I was willing to work for him, I was not willing to share his degradation.” She asked for a separation and was granted one. One more way in which she was free!

Ms. Keckley Goes to Washington

In 1860, she left St. Louis, headed for Baltimore where she attempted to teach other young black women how to cut and fit dresses. This was unsuccessful, though, and after six weeks, she was left with just enough money for fare to Washington DC. Once she arrived in DC, she began working for $2.50 a day.

In the winter of 1860, Senator Jefferson Davis, and his wife, Varina, arrived in DC. Varina was in need of a modiste, or dressmaker, and Lizzie, already working for one of Varina’s friends, came highly recommended and got the job.

I think that bears repeating: Lizzie Keckley, a former slave, became dressmaker to the future First Lady of the Confederacy. If you think that’s a weird twist of fate, just hold on.

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Lizzie, circa 1861. Photo via WUNC.

Varina kept her busy making clothing for herself and the Davis children. Then she decided that she wanted to give Jefferson a dressing gown for Christmas and who else would make it but Lizzie Keckley? Lizzie finished it on Christmas Eve and it was given to Jefferson on Christmas morning. She wrote, “As the clock struck twelve I finished the gown, little dreaming of the future that was before it. It was worn, I have not the shadow of a doubt, by Mr. Davis during the stormy years that he was the President of the Confederate States.”

As war approached, Varina put forth the idea that Lizzie should come south with them and continue to be her dressmaker. And Lizzie seriously considered it! She and Varina trusted each other and had built a relationship. When the Davises left DC, Lizzie “half promised” to join them in the South if she changed her mind. She didn’t. But she did come across a statue of Jefferson Davis in Chicago after the war’s end. He was wearing a dress that he was purported to have been captured in. Lizzie recognized the dress immediately as one she had made for Varina! He was wearing a coat when he was captured, not a dress, but Lizzie swore the statue was wearing one of her creations.

I just can’t get over all of that.

Lizzie K. Meets Mary T. (Lincoln)

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Mary Lincon in on of her inauguration gowns, purportedly made by Lizzie. Photo via Library of Congress.

Since she had arrived in DC, Lizzie decided that she would do anything to work in the White House. Since she already made a name for herself in St. Louis and Washington, her name made it through the grapevine to Mary Lincoln, the new First Lady. Mary was in a bit of a bind. She spilled coffee on the gown she planned on wearing to the reception after Lincoln’s inauguration. Mrs. McClean, one of Lizzie’s clients, recommended her to Mary and after assuring Mary that her prices were reasonable, Lizzie had the job. She made it to the White House!

She made many dresses for Mary and the two became close friends. Their working relationship and friendship were not secret and on at least one occasion, Lizzie had to rebuff requests to use her influence with Mrs. Lincoln for someone else’s personal gain. Lizzie was extremely loyal and wouldn’t dream of betraying Mary’s trust.

In 1861, tragedy struck. Her son, George, was killed in the Battle of Lexington. Being biracial, he was able to pass as white and enlist in the Union Army. Lizzie does not write of this in her book.

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Photo via Library of Congress.

In early 1862, twelve-year-old Willie Lincoln, President and Mrs. Lincoln’s third son, contracted typhoid fever. He passed away in February of the same year. Lizzie watched President Lincoln’s grief consume him and make him a “weak, passive child.” Lizzie wrote that Mary’s grief was inconsolable. She sobbed, went into convulsions, and was so consumed by her grief that she was unable to attend Willie’s funeral. So close was Lizzie to the family that she prepared Willie’s body for burial, washing and dressing the little boy.

Later in 1862, freed slaves began pouring into Washington from Maryland and Virginia. Freedom was more difficult than many anticipated, though. They had nothing. Noticing this, Lizzie founded the Contraband Relief Association (freed slaves were called ‘contraband’ at the time) to raise funds and collect clothing for freedmen. That same year, Lizzie accompanied Mary on a trip to New York. Lizzie saw this as a wonderful opportunity to gain support for her relief association. She appealed to prominent black citizens to donate, garnering plenty of interest in her association. When Mary went to Boston to visit her son Robert at college, Lizzie came with her and Mary called on the city’s philanthropists to donate. President and Mrs. Lincoln were frequent donators themselves.

Paranoia Consumes Mary and Tragedy Strikes (Again)

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Another of Mary’s dresses thought to have been made by Lizzie. Photo via Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

By 1863, Mary was becoming increasingly paranoid about assassins. Mary Lincoln often, unfairly, I think, gets painted as mentally unwell so it would be easy to chalk those concerns up to that. But Lincoln regularly received letters threatening his life. He disregarded them but they fed Mary’s anxieties as well as the anxieties of Lincoln’s friends. Sometimes friends of the couple stayed at the White House if it was thought that the President was in real danger (this was pre-Secret Service protection.)

During the 1864 election, Mary often talked to Lizzie about her worries over whether or not her husband would be reelected. Mary was very afraid that he would not be. But once he was reelected, she seemed to wish he wouldn’t have been. She could see the toll the presidency was taking on him. Nevertheless, Lizzie dressed Mary for the inauguration and the following festivities and Washington celebrated four more years of President Lincoln.

Of course, Lincoln would not serve four more years.

On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was shot while watching the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre. Lizzie was asleep and recalled being woken up at around 11 PM by friend and neighbor, Miss Brown. Miss Brown told Lizzie that the Cabinet had been assassinated and Mr. Lincoln was shot, although not fatally. She quickly got dressed and went to the White House, where she was told that President Lincoln had not been brought there and that no one would be allowed in. She went back home but couldn’t sleep. She wanted to go to Mary but still didn’t know where the President had been taken. Around 11:00 the following morning, Mary sent a carriage for her. Upon arriving at the White House, Mary asked why she didn’t come to her the previous night. She specifically asked for Lizzie and three messengers were sent to find her. They all misremembered Lizzie’s address so Mary was without her best friend on what was perhaps the most horrific night of her life.

But they were together now and Lizzie, along with Robert and Tad Lincoln, tried to comfort Mary.

But sometimes comfort just won’t come.

Lizzie helped Mary pack up and prepare to leave the White House. Mary planned on moving to Chicago and was under the impression that Lizzie would move with her. Lizzie did go to Chicago for a short time but soon returned to Washington and her dressmaking business.

I wish Lizzie’s story ended here. But it doesn’t.

Even the Best Laid Plans of Mice & Men Often Go Awry

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Photo via UNC Libraries.

Mary Lincoln had a shopping habit. The kind of habit where she’d buy three hundred pairs of gloves at a time. Because she was the First Lady, shops gave her items on credit. As you can imagine, she racked up debt. A lot of it. When President Lincoln was assassinated and she was no longer First Lady, those shops came after the money she owed them. She didn’t have it, not even close. In 1867, it all came to a head and she wrote Lizzie telling her of her financial troubles. She hatched a plan to sell some of her wardrobe, much of which had never been worn, as a means of generating income. Lizzie agreed to help her and the two met in New York to begin selling Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe. Mary was very embarrassed about needing to do this and it was to be a secretive operation.

This plan was foiled when the dealer she partnered with recognized her immediately. She ended up holding a public auction and exhibition of her clothing, which was a total failure. Not only did she not make any money from it, but it became a PR disaster. The extent of her spending was exposed and she was accused of being a spendthrift and even of desecrating President Lincoln’s name. Her name was run through the mud and Lizzie’s was too, by proxy. This became known as the “Old Clothes Scandal.”

That’s when Lizzie decided to write her book, Behind the Scenes. She felt that her story of escaping slavery was similar to that of Frederick Douglass and wanted to share it. She also thought that by writing her life story, she could shed some light on Mary’s situation and clear the air (and their names).

Unfortunately, that is basically the opposite of what happened.

Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House

Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley

Photo via UNC Libraries.

Mary felt that Lizzie’s book only added to the gossip and felt betrayed that her best friend would put personal details out there. Lizzie was vilified by the press for exposing so much about the First Family. After the book’s publication, Mary cut all ties with Lizzie and the two never spoke again.

Lizzie’s business declined to the point of nonexistence and she never made a cent from her book. She supported herself by teaching young women to sew and eventually got a position teaching at Wilberforce University in Ohio. When her health began to decline, she moved to The Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, which she helped establish during her years as president of the Contraband Relief Association. She died in 1907 at the age of 88.

She still had a picture of Mary Lincoln on her dresser.

Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Mary & Lizzie. Illustration by Jody Hewgill.


Sources (contains affiliate links)

Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley (.99 Kindle version here!)
A Strong Thread in a Torn Union by John Williams
Disarming the Nation: Women’s Writing and the American Civil War by Elizabeth Young
The Story of Elizabeth Keckley, Former-Slave-Turned-Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Emily Spivack
30 Years a Slave, 4 Years in the White House, WUNC North Carolina Public Radio by Anita Rao and Frank Stasio
The History Chicks Episode 72, Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Part One

I intended this to be one post but as I got writing, I realized that it would be entirely too long. I felt that leaving out big chunks of her story would be doing her a disservice so I’m breaking it up into two posts! (Find part two here!) If you’re unfamiliar with Elizabeth Keckley, you are in for a treat. Now enjoy the first part of Lizzie Keckley’s story…

Of her own life, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley wrote that it “has been an eventful one.” I believe that might be a bit of an understatement.

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She was born into slavery at the Dinwiddie Courthouse in Virginia in 1818. Her parents as she knew them were Agnes and George Pleasant Hobbs, although one biographer asserts that her parents’ master, Colonel Burwell, was actually her father. Regardless, Lizzie wasn’t able to have a relationship with George, as he belonged to another man nearby. When Lizzie was a child, her family was permanently separated. For a time, George was permitted to visit Agnes and Lizzie at the Easter and Christmas holidays and at one point, it looked as though they’d be reunited. They weren’t though, and George was forced to move out west with his master. Of this, Lizzie wrote,

“The announcement fell upon the little circle in that rude-log cabin like a thunderbolt. I can remember the scene as if it were but yesterday;–how my father cried out against the cruel separation; his last kiss; his wild straining of my mother to his bosom; the solemn prayer to Heaven; the tears and sobs–the fearful anguish of broken hearts. The last kiss, the last good-by; and he, my father, was gone, gone forever.”

George and Agnes were literate in a time when slaves were prohibited from learning to read and write. After George was taken west, they never saw each other again but they did exchange letters. In one letter, George wrote, “Tell my darling little Lizzie to be a good girl, and to learn her book. Kiss her for me, and tell her that I will come to see her some day.”

Did your heart just break? Because mine did.

Lizzie never saw her dad again.

North Carolina

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Lizzie’s historical marker in Hillsborough, NC. Photo via WUNC.

When she was 14, she was loaned to her master’s son, a minister with a “helpless” wife. Four years later, she moved with the couple from Virginia to Hillsboro (now Hillsborough), North Carolina. It was in Hillsboro that she endured four years of rape and assault by a man she chose not to name. This led to her becoming pregnant with her only child, a son she would name George. Of this, she wrote, “If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth, he could not blame his mother, for God knows that she did not wish to give him life; he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position.”

Sometime later, Lizzie doesn’t provide specifics here, she returned to Virginia with her former master’s daughter and her (the daughter’s) husband, Mr. Garland. Although she was still enslaved, leaving North Carolina was a relief to her.

St. Louis

Mr. Garland struggled in Virginia and moved his family to St. Louis. You can’t run from your troubles, though, and the family continued to struggle in their new city. His financial situation was so dire that Lizzie wrote that he was unable to pay the dues on a letter addressed to him. In order to better their situation, Mr. Garland proposed that Lizzie’s mother be placed “out at service.” I am unsure, but I believe this means that she was to be loaned to another family for a fee, essentially rented out, as awful as that sounds.Regardless, Lizzie was not having it. “I would rather work my fingers to the bone, bend over my sewing till the film of blindness gathered in my eyes; nay, even beg from street to street,” she wrote in her autobiography.

Lizzie Becomes the Breadwinner

Mr. Garland gave Lizzie permission to find a solution herself. She was a talented seamstress and soon found herself with all of the dress-making work she could handle. She was a master at fitting bodices and could apparently drape fabric like nobody’s business. When word of her skills got out to the society ladies of St. Louis, she made enough money to support seventeen people for two years and five months. She was one woman supporting seventeen people for over two years. As is expected, the heavy workload and stress of supporting that many people began to take its toll. Lizzie’s health began to decline. It was about this time that Mr. James Keckley, a man she met years earlier in Virginia, came to St. Louis and proposed marriage. She didn’t even consider it. She didn’t want to bring more children into slavery and although she loved George very much, she struggled with the fact that he was born by no will of her own, into slavery.

Buying Her Freedom

It was 1852 and Lizzie decided to ask for permission to buy freedom for herself and George. When she approached Mr. Garland, he gave her money for a ferry ride across the Mississippi. If they crossed the river, they’d be free. Lizzie was insulted. She had crossed the river many times and could have just run away. She wanted it to be official. Without papers, she and her son could be captured and returned to slavery at any time. After consideration, Mr. Garland agreed to take $1200 in exchange for freedom for Lizzie and George.

Now that she was free, she agreed to marry James. Things quickly soured in the marriage, however. James told Lizzie he was a free man. He was not. He was a slave. Lizzie continued to work to support George, James (which she referred to as a “burden instead of a helpmate”), and the Garland family. She had bought her freedom but she was still enslaved. Due to the strain of supporting even more people than before, she was unable to save the money to purchase her freedom for the second time.

Freed…Again

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Lizzie’s second bond of freedom, issued on May 5, 1859. Photo via the Missouri Historical Museum.

Around this time, Mr. Garland died and Mr. Burwell came to settle Mr. Garland’s estate. Burwell decided that Lizzie should be free and helped her to raise the money necessary to pay for freedom. I think he could have just freed her but…anyway. The plan was for Lizzie to go to New York and plead for money. Before she left, though, one of her patrons, Ms. Le Bourgois decided that she and the rest of the society ladies should pay for Lizzie’s freedom. Ms. Le Bourgois put up $100 and appealed to the other women to pitch in. Soon they had raised the $1200 needed for Lizzie and George. They were free, this time for good.

Of regaining her freedom, Lizzie wrote, “Free! the earth wore a brighter look, and the very stars seemed to sing with joy. Yes, free! free by the laws of man and the smile of God–and Heaven bless them who made me so!”

For part two of Lizzie’s story, click here!


These two posts were inspired by this shirt I got from a really awesome little company called Historical Dream. I think it’s the most comfortable shirt I own and I already have my eye on their Harriet Tubman dolman top!


Sources (contains affiliate links)
Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, And Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley (free in website format here or .99 Kindle version here)
Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs at American National Biography Online
Elizabeth Keckley at the Virginia Historical Society
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley at the Burwell School Historic Site
30 Years A Slave, 4 Years In The White House on WUNC, North Carolina Public Radio by Anita Rao and Frank StasioThe History Chicks Episode 72, Elizabeth Keckley

Bobbi Gibb: The First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon

In 1966, 24-year old Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon…except women weren’t allowed to run it.

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Bobbi crossing the finish line at the 1966 Boston Marathon. Photo via Yarrow Kraner and NYT.

She watched the 1964 Boston Marathon and was entranced. She told herself, “I’m going to run this race.” She began training almost immediately.

At the time, it was thought that running distances over 1.5 miles was potentially deadly to women. Still, she pushed herself to run a little further every day. Oh, and she had to train in nurse’s shoes since shoe companies didn’t make athletic shoes for women. After her two-year training period, Bobbi submitted her application to the race and it was only then that she learned that women were not allowed to compete. The director of the marathon told her that women were not physiologically able to run the 26.2 miles and the liability was just too great. Not taking no for answer, she took a week-long bus ride from San Diego to Massachusetts and ran the race in her brother’s Bermuda shorts, a swimsuit, and a hoodie (photo above, minus the hoodie). Since she didn’t have a bib and race number, she hid in the bushes near the starting line, waiting for the starting gun.

When the race began, her fellow runners almost immediately realized that she was a woman. Gibb, already anxious about being discovered, became even more afraid that she would be pulled out of the race or even arrested. The men running the marathon assured her that if anyone tried to keep her from running, they’d put a stop to it.

After 26.2 miles, she came in #290 out of 415 men.

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Gibb after the 1966 Boston Marathon. Photo via Yarrow Kraner and NYT.

The next year, she ran again. This time other women joined her.

The next year, she ran again. Even more women joined her.

In 1972, six years after Bobbi’s first time running the marathon, the Boston Marathon began allowing women to participate. (The Amateur Athletics Union permitted women to participate in marathons in the fall of 1971, after that year’s Boston Marathon.)

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Bobbi at the 2015 Boston Marathon. Photo via Yarrow Kraner and NYT.

Bobbi Gibb is now 75 years old. Since the 1960s, she has earned a pre-med degree and attended law school. She is a member of the MA state bar and has worked with the University of Massachusetts Medical Center studying neurodegenerative diseases.

She’s also an accomplished sculptor and painter, with her works on display in the National Art Museum of Sport in Indianapolis. She has also exhibited her art at many temporary exhibits in museums and has been commissioned to create a bronze sculpture to be placed on the Boston Marathon route.

And because all of that isn’t impressive enough, she’s also an environmentalist, author, and documentary film producer.


Sources
About, Bobbigibb.net
The Incredible Story of Bobbi Gibb, the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon by Brigit Katz, NYT
History of the Boston Marathon, Boston Athletics Association

Dorothea Dix: Teacher and Mental Health Advocate

When I first moved to Raleigh nearly six years ago, I became aware of Dorothea Dix because (spoiler alert!) one of the institutions she helped set up still stands right outside of downtown Raleigh.

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Part of the Dorothea Dix campus in Raleigh. Photo via zalevaika on Flickr.

The campus takes up over 300 acres of land that the city has gained ownership of and is in the process of turning it into a “destination park.” But this post isn’t about Dix Park. It’s about the woman herself.

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Dorothea Dix. Photo via Museum of Disability on Flickr.

Dorothea Dix was born April 4, 1802 in Hampden, Maine. She was the oldest of three children. Her father was an alcoholic Methodist preacher and her mother was in poor mental health. As you would expect, her home life was very unhappy and her father was likely abusive. The family moved to Vermont shortly before the British invaded Hampden during the War of 1812. When her two younger brothers were born, she took over caring for them. When reflecting on this time of her life, she would later write, “I never knew childhood.”

In 1814, due to her parents’ failing health and inability to care for their children, her paternal grandmother took Dorothea and her brothers to live with her in Boston. Madame Dix was very wealthy and lived in a home referred to a “Dix Mansion.” Despite their new lifestyle, Dorothea continued to care for her brothers. Dorothea and her grandmother also butted heads about Dorothea’s rejection of the finer things in life, like a private dance teacher and personal seamstress. Madame Dix was furious when she discovered Dorothea giving food and clothing to “beggar children” outside the mansion’s front gate. Dorothea didn’t act like the wealthy girl she suddenly was and it bothered Madame Dix so much that she send Dorothea to her sister’s house (Dorothea’s great-aunt’s) to become a “lady.” Once she arrived, she immediately assumed the role so that she could go back to her brothers at Dix Mansion.

It was around this time that Dorothea decided she wanted to be a schoolteacher. She was informed, however, that girls were not allowed to attend public schools. Her cousin, Edward Bangs, suggested she start her own “little dame school” to get around this. Dorothea was sold and Edward helped her secure space for her lessons. In 1816 at the ripe old age of 15, Dorothea held her first class.

I’m going to fast forward now to 1841, when she had an experience that was the catalyst for her work in mental health reform. Between 1816 and 1841, she continued to teach and opened a school right in Dix Mansion with the support of Madame Dix. It was during this time that she began writing books for children. Around 1836, she took an extended trip to Europe to recoup from tuberculosis. In January 1841, she returned to Boston.

A few months after her return, she volunteered to teach Sunday school classes to women at the East Cambridge Jail. What she saw appalled her. The cells were unfurnished, unsanitary, and unheated, despite how brutal New England winters can be. She also thought it was unfair that mentally ill inmates were locked away with criminals. When she asked why inmates were forced to live under these conditions, she was told, “the insane do not feel hot or cold.”

She knew that this was not right and immediately began investigating other prisons and asylums. She found more of the same. In 1843, she used this data to submit a pamphlet (also known as a “memorial”) to the Massachusetts state legislature. Since women couldn’t vote or hold office, this was the only way she could get this in front of the legislature. (She wasn’t even allowed to present it herself. A man had to present it for her.)

It worked and funds were set aside for the expansion of the Worcester Mental Hospital

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Worcester State Hospital postcard. Photo via worcestermass.com

After this victory, she began traveling to other states to do the same. In the end, she helped establish 32 hospitals for the mentally ill, 15 schools for special needs children, a school for the blind, and several training facilities for nurses. She covered every state east of the Mississippi and then some. She did the same in Europe in the 1840s, covering 13 countries in two years. At home, she continued to be involved in the government as much as she could, which was not much considered the restrictions placed on women. During the Civil War, she became the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses and served for the duration of the war. She spent the last six years of her life in a hospital in Trenton, NJ. She passed away on June 17, 1887.

We’re not done here, though. We haven’t actually talked about her beliefs!

Obviously she believed that mentally ill people deserve to be treated like people. Unfortunately, this way of thinking was radical during her time. The mainstream belief was that mentally ill people could never be cured and they were fine to live in their “dreadful conditions.” Dorothea believed that better living conditions could help treat mental illness. (While it won’t cure you, as someone who has gone through depression and severe anxiety, I can tell you that sometimes just taking a shower and tidying up makes a world of difference.)

About a young woman, she wrote, “some may say these things cannot be remedied, these furious maniacs are not to be raised from these base conditions. I know they are…I could give many examples. One such is a young woman who was for years ‘a raging maniac’ chained in a cage and whipped to control her acts and words. She was helped by a husband and wife who agreed to take care of her in their home and slowly she recovered her senses.”

No one understood the processes in the brain that were occurring in these individuals but Dorothea knew that at the very least, providing them with habitable conditions wouldn’t harm them.

During her life, Dorothea eschewed praise and often did not even put her name on the books that she wrote or hospitals that were opened during her lifetime. Even today, she is mostly unknown. Still, she is responsible for the 19th century shift in thinking about mental health in the US and much of Europe. We still have a long way to go but Dorothea ignited change during a time when everything was against her.

 

 

Sources
Dorothea Dix by Jenn Bumb
Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) by Manon S. Parry
Dorothea Lynde Dix by Tana Brumfield Casarez