Viola Desmond’s name may not be as well-known as Rosa Parks’, but she took her stand against segregation nearly a decade before Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.
Viola Davis was born in 1914, one of ten children to a white mother and black father in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Growing up, she noticed an absence of hair and skin-care options for women of colour and decided she would be the woman to correct this. But her skin colour prevented her from beautician training at home, so she went off to Montreal and then to New York to complete her education. Returning to Halifax, she opened her own hair salon, where she would tend to a young Gwen Jenkins, later to be the first black nurse in Nova Scotia. And she didn’t stop there. She went on to found The Desmond School of Beauty Culture so black women could train closer to home. Students were taught how to open their own businesses, providing jobs for other black women in their communities. Then she started her own line of beauty products, Vi’s Beauty Products, which she sold herself.
It was on just such a work trip when she found herself in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, in 1946. Her car had broken down and was going to be in the shop overnight, so to kill time she went to see The Dark Mirror at the Roseland Film Theatre. At the box office, she asked for a main floor ticket and then took her seat, only to be told by the manager she did not have a ticket for that seat. She went back to the ticket booth but they refused to sell her a different ticket, claiming it was against their policiy to to sell a main floor seat to a black person. Desmond returned to her original seat with her original ticket, refusing to sit in the balcony designated for black patrons. She was forcibly removed from the theatre, arrested with enough violence to cause injury to her hip. She was jailed overnight without access to a lawyer or bail.
This was a private movie theatre and its segregation practises went against the law in Nova Scotia so Desmond was actually charged with tax evasion, believe it or not, for the one-cent difference in tax between the slightly cheaper balcony ticket she was sold and the main floor seat she actually occupied. One cent. She was fined $20 plus $6 in court costs; she paid and went home to Halifax. But her Minister really didn’t like how things went, and encouraged her to fight the charge. Carrie Best broke the story in Nova Scotia’s first black-owned and published newspaper, The Clarion. Best had previously written about The Roseland Theatre and was happy to take up the cause. So too was Desmond’s Baptist church and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Sadly, her lawyer made some bad decisions and they ultimately lost the case.
In 2010, Mayann Francis, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, invoked the Royal Prerogative to grant Desmond a posthumous free pardon – the first to be granted in Canada. It’s different from a regular pardon because it is based on innocence and recognizes that the conviction was in error. Francis was emotional as she signed the document: “”Here I am, 64 years later – a black woman giving freedom to another black woman.” The government of Nova Scotia followed up with an apology, acknowledging she was rightfully resisting racial discrimination.
So that’s how one small act of defiance in a rural movie theatre galvanized the Canadian civil rights movement, and it’s why Ms. Desmond will be featured on Canadian currency next year when her face graces our $10 bill. Thank you, Viola Desmond.