Black Civil Rights in Nova Scotia, Canada

March 20, 2020

ViolaTo celebrate Women’s History Month, we thought we’d call attention to a black civil rights worker from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Viola Desmond was biracial, which was somewhat unusual for the time. One of 10 children, she was raised by her paternal grandparents, who were active in Halifax area public events. As she grew a little older, Desmond noticed the lack of makeup and skin care products for women of color and decided to create these.

Because she was of African descent, Mrs. Desmond wasn’t allowed to attend beautician classes in Nova Scotia. Instead, she trained in Montreal, Atlantic City and New York City. She returned to Halifax to start her own beauty salon, the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, so that black women would not have to travel as far as she had to receive proper training. It catered to women from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec, and was very popular. Students were taught how to open their own businesses and provide jobs for other black women. Each year as many as 15 women graduated, all of whom had been denied admission to whites-only training schools.

Viola Desmond's 1947 Graduation Class

As The Honourable MayAnn Francis, a former Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia said: “The racism in the United States was truly in your face. In Canada, the racism was very polite — sort of undercover.”

In November 1946, while on a business trip to sell her beauty products, Mrs. Desmond’s car broke down in New Glasgow. She was told that the parts wouldn’t be available until the next day. To pass the time, Desmond went to see The Dark Mirror starring Olivia de Havilland at the Roseland Film Theatre.

Viola Desmond $10 BillWhile there were no formal laws enforcing segregation in New Glasgow movie theatres, and the theatre had no sign telling its patrons about the policy, main floor seats were reserved for white patrons. Ms. Desmond was sold a ticket to the balcony, unaware of the segregation and, being nearsighted, went to sit in the floor section. When asked to move, she realized what was happening, and refused to move because she had a better view from the main floor. She was forcibly removed from the theatre, causing an injury to her hip, and also was arrested for 12 hours in jail, 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. Desmond remained in jail overnight and was never informed about her right to legal advice, a lawyer, or bail.

Ultimately, Violet Desmond lost her case and the judge who heard her appeal wrote: “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 endeavour to enforce a Jim Crow rule by misuse of a public statute.” — Justice William Lorimer Hall, when dismissing Desmond’s application.

The outcome of all these activities on Desmond’s part were impressive:

  • Her lawyer, refused to bill Desmond and the money was used to support William Pearly Oliver’s newly established Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP).
  • Desmond was portrayed on a commemorative stamp issued by Canada Post in 2012.
  • In November 2018, the Bank of Canada released a new design of the $10 bill, celebrating Viola Desmond’s achievements in the civil rights movement.
  • Desmond was named a National Historic Person on January 12, 2018.

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