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Mon, 07.06.1914

Viola Desmond, Businesswoman born

Viola Desmond

*Viola Desmond was born on this date in 1914.  She was a Black Canadian businesswoman and activist.

Viola Desmond (née Davis) was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, one of ten children of James Albert and Gwendoline Irene (née Johnson) Davis.  She grew up with parents who were active in the black community in Halifax.  As a teenager, Desmond noted the absence of professional hair and skin-care products for black women and set her sights on addressing the need.

Being Black, 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 Madam C. J. Walker's beauty schools in New York.  Desmond returned to Halifax after finishing school to start her hair salon. Her clients included Portia White and a young Gwen Jenkins, later the first black nurse in Nova Scotia.

She also opened The Desmond School of Beauty Culture so Canadian Black women could receive proper training. Catering to women from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec, the school operated using a vertical integration framework. Students were provided with the skills required to open their businesses and provide jobs for other black women within their communities. Each year around twelve women graduated.   She also started, marketed, and sold her line of beauty products, Vi's Beauty Products.   She joined her husband, Jack Desmond, in a combined barbershop and hairdressing salon on Gottingen Street.

On November 8, 1946, while on a business trip to New Glasgow, her car broke down, and she was told that she would have to wait a day before the parts to fix it became available. To pass the time while waiting, she went to see the movie The Dark Mirror at the Roseland Film Theatre.  No formal laws enforced segregation in movie theaters in New Glasgow, and the theater had no sign telling its patrons about the policy, but main floor seats were reserved for whites.

Desmond was sold a ticket to the balcony, unaware of the segregation, and, being shortsighted, went to sit in the floor section.  When asked to move, she realized what was happening, refused, and was forcibly removed from the theater, causing injury to her hip; she also was jailed and had to pay a $20 fine. The tax on the balcony price of 20 cents was two cents; the tax on the floor price of 40 cents was three cents.  She was convicted of depriving the government of one cent in tax.  While in jail, she was never informed about her right to legal advice, a lawyer, or bail.

After her release, her husband’s advice was to let it go. However, the leaders of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, Minister William Pearly Oliver and his wife Pearline, encouraged her to take action. With their support, Desmond decided to fight the charge in court.  With the help of her church and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Desmond hired a lawyer, Frederick William Bissett, who represented her in the criminal trials and attempted, unsuccessfully, to file a lawsuit against the Roseland Theatre.  Carrie Best broke the story of Desmond in the first edition of The Clarion, the first Black-owned and published Nova Scotia newspaper.  Best had herself previously confronted the racial segregation of the Roseland Theatre.

During the trials, the government argued that this was a tax evasion case. The statute used to convict Desmond contained no explicitly racist or discriminatory language.  A provincial act regulating cinemas and movie theatres required the payment of an amusement tax based on the price of the theatre ticket. Since the theatre would only agree to sell Desmond a cheaper balcony ticket, but she insisted on sitting in the more expensive main floor seat, she was one cent short on tax.  Her council's decision to opt for a judicial review rather than appeal the original conviction proved disastrous. Bissett, Desmond's lawyer, tried to appeal the decision based on her being wrongfully accused of tax evasion, not based on racial discrimination.

When dismissing the case, the Magistrate said: “Had the matter reached the court by some other method than certiorari, there might have been an opportunity to right the wrong done this unfortunate woman. One wonders if the manager of the theatre who laid the complaint was so zealous because of a bona fide belief that there had been an attempt to defraud the province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavor to enforce a Jim Crow rule by misuse of a public statute.” — Justice William Lorimer Hall, when dismissing Desmond's application.

After the trial, Desmond closed her business and moved to Montreal, where she could enroll in a business college. She eventually settled in New York City, where she died from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on February 7, 1965, at 50.  She is buried at Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In 2000, Desmond and other Canadian civil rights activists were the subjects of a National Film Board of Canada documentary, Journey to Justice. A documentary about her was entitled Long Road to Justice: The Viola Desmond Story.  Cape Breton University established a scholarship campaign in the name of Viola Desmond and her sister, Wanda Robson, and named a Chair in Social Justice after Desmond.  Robson also wrote a book about activism in her family and her experiences with her sister, titled Sister to Courage.   Desmond was also the subject of a children's book Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged, by Jody Nyasha Warner.

In 2010, Viola Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon, the first in Canada.  The government of Nova Scotia also apologized.  Desmond's younger sister, Wanda Robson, and Dr. Graham Reynolds, a professor of Cape Breton University, worked with the Government of Nova Scotia to ensure that her name was cleared, public acknowledgment of the injustice, and Nova Scotia reaffirmed its commitment to Human Rights. The provincial government declared the first Nova Scotia Heritage Day in her honor in February 2015.  Desmond's portrait also hangs in the Government House in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In 2016, the Bank of Canada announced that Desmond would be the first Canadian woman to be featured on the front of a banknote, but that honor went to Agnes Macphail. She appeared with three men on a 2017 commemorative note marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation.  On March 8, 2018, Desmond was the first Canadian-born woman to appear alone on a $10 bill unveiled by Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz during a ceremony at the Halifax Central Library.  Desmond was also named a National Historic Person in 2018.

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