Notable Black Women: Viola Desmond

Viola Irene Desmond (née Davis): 6 July 1914 – 7 February 1965

A while back on my blog, I was starting to do a bi-monthly feature about notable Black women in history. This feature fell to the side due to travel and other events that were going on, but I am starting it up again today!

Viola Desmond, a Black civil rights leader who fought against anti-Black racism and segregation in Canada in the 1940s, will be the first Canadian woman featured on a banknote. From Al-Jazeera:

A black civil rights leader who led a struggle against anti-black segregation and racism in Canada in the 1940s will be the first Canadian woman to figure on a banknote.

Viola Desmond will appear on the Canadian $10 bill – replacing the nation’s first prime minister John A Macdonald who will be moved to a higher bill – when new banknotes go into circulation in 2018, Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced on Thursday morning.

A successful businesswoman from a middle-class family, Desmond is best known for refusing to give up her seat in the “whites only” section of a cinema in Canada’s eastern province of Nova Scotia in 1946.

She was eventually dragged out of the segregated cinema by police, arrested, held in prison overnight, and forced to pay a fine, all for refusing to move to the upstairs balcony reserved for black people. She was criminally charged with not paying a small tax that would normally apply on a downstairs ticket. But instead of letting the matter rest, Desmond decided to fight her conviction in court.

“Viola inspires us … today as she inspired people years ago,” said her sister Wanda Robson, who attended the announcement. “I’m so proud, I’m almost in tears.”

Her case was the first known legal challenge by a black woman against segregation laws in Canada. Desmond, who died in 1965, had the support of local black community leaders and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, among others.

In 2010, she received a posthumous pardon from the province of Nova Scotia…Earlier this year, the Bank of Canada launched an open call to nominate iconic Canadian women to appear on the new banknote. After receiving 26,000 submissions, the bank narrowed the list down to 461 women, and five eventually made the shortlist.”

Mrs. Desmond was trained as a teacher, but became a successful businesswoman, marketing her own line of beauty products in the barbershop, hair-styling salon, and beauty parlour she shared with her husband, Jack Desmond. From Wikipedia:

Viola Desmond (née Davis) was born on July 6, 1914, one of fifteen children born to James Albert and Gwendolin Irene (née Johnson) Davis.[7] Viola grew up with parents who were active in the black community in Halifax, and were prominent members of various social circles and organizations.[8]

Growing up, Desmond noted the absence of professional hair- and skin-care products for black women, and set her sights on addressing the need.[9][7] Being of African descent, Viola Desmond was not allowed to train to become a beautician in Halifax, so she left and received beautician training in Montreal, Atlantic City, and one of Madame C.J. Walker’s beauty schools in New York. Upon finishing her training, Viola Desmond returned to Halifax to start her own hair salon. Her clients included Portia White and a young Gwen Jenkins, later the first black nurse in Nova Scotia.[10]

In addition to the salon, Desmond set up The Desmond School of Beauty Culture so that black women would not have to travel as far as she did to receive proper training. Catering to women from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec, the school operated using a vertical integration framework.[7][11] Students were provided with the skills required to open their own businesses and provide jobs for other black women within their communities. Each year as many as fifteen women graduated from the school, all of whom had been denied admission to whites-only training schools.[7] Desmond also started her own line of beauty products, Vi’s Beauty Products which she marketed and sold herself.”

Her activism preceded that of Rosa Parks by nine years. From the Huffington Post:

Nine years before police arrested African-American civil rights activist Rosa Parks for refusing to relinquish her seat to a white person on a segregated bus, Desmond made history in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, for a similar act of courageous defiance.

Desmond, a beautician and businesswoman, is best remembered for a prominent incident in 1946 that helped shape Canada’s modern civil rights movement. The 32-year-old was ejected from a movie theater and unjustly accused of minor tax evasion after refusing to leave the cinema’s whites-only seating area. She spent the night in jail and was later fined after a heated trial that drew angry protests from Nova Scotia’s black community.

It was not until decades after Desmond’s death in 1965 that the injustice she endured received official recognition. The province apologized and granted her a free pardon in 2010, acknowledging the case as an act of racial discrimination.

“This is a historic day for the province of Nova Scotia and a chance for us to finally right the wrong done to Mrs. Desmond and her family,” said Darrell Dexter, who was premier of Nova Scotia at the time. “This is also an opportunity for us to acknowledge the incredibly brave actions of a woman who took a stand against racism and segregation.”

Viola’s sister, Wanda Robson, was present and stood alongside Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau as he made the announcement. I toast and celebrate this great lady and this awesome news…fantastic!

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. dancingpalmtrees
    Dec 09, 2016 @ 14:57:32

    Reblogged this on Espiritu en Fuego/A Fiery Spirit and commented:
    Viola Desmond the Canadian Rosa Parks!!

  2. Tofino Photography
    Dec 09, 2016 @ 20:53:29

    Great post!

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