Looking Back on Viola Desmond

Yonael Debebe - 1B Systems
Posted on: July 24, 2019

Viola Desmond was a Canadian, an
entrepreneur, a businesswoman, a civil
rights activist, a beautician, and a mentor. Viola Davis (later Desmond) was
born on the 6th of July, 1914 in Halifax,
NS to two proud community activists.
Inspired by her parent’s work ethic and
activism, Desmond strove to become an
independent businesswoman. She built
her career as a beautician who mentored
and nurtured black women through her
“Desmond School of Beauty Culture”.
In 1946, while traveling for business,
Viola Desmond’s car broke down in New
Glasgow and that’s where history would
be made later that day at the Roseland
theatre. While attempting to watch a
movie from a fl oor seat because of her
poor eyesight, she challenged the theatre’s discriminatory practices by refusing
to leave the fl oor section of the theatre
that was reserved for Whites. This courage galvanized the movement to end racial discrimination in Canada. Her place
in Canadian history is why she was selected to grace the new $10 bill as part
of its latest iteration. The Desmond bill’s
stunning design won it the coveted Bank
Note of the Year Award for 2018, over
eye-catching banknotes from all over the
world.

After teaching and giving back to her
community at a couple of racially-segregated schools, she started making her
own path as an entrepreneur and beautician by joining the Field Beauty Culture
School in Montreal. There were less than
a handful of such institutions that accepted Black applicants in Canada and so she
had to complete her education at schools
in the U.S., in Atlantic City, New Jersey,
and in New York. Having completed her
education, Desmond opened Vi’s Studio
of Beauty Culture in Halifax in order to
cater to the beauty needs of the black
community. Recognizing the lack of
training available for black beauticians
in Canada, Desmond started a school
that gave her the opportunity to mentor
and teach these skills to students from all
over eastern Canada. Having identified
a gap in the beauty product market for
women of colour, Desmond started her
own venture called “Vi’s Beauty Products” which received orders from all over
Nova Scotia. She inspired her students
and her clients with her entrepreneurial
spirit and passion for community activism.

On the 18th of November 1946, Desmond was travelling to Sydney, NS for
business and her car broke down in New
Glasgow. While waiting for her car to be
repaired, Desmond went to a movie theatre and attempted to buy a fl oor seat, unaware of the theatre’s policy of restricting
Black people to the upper balcony. When
attempting to fi nd her seat in the fl oor
section, the usher told her to go to the
balcony to fi nd her seat. Thinking there
had been a mistake Desmond returned
to the cashier who refused to exchange
her ticket and told her “I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.” The realization that she was being
discriminated against due to her race emboldened her to return to the fl oor section
and take a seat. When confronted by the
theatre manager, Desmond courageously
stood her ground and refused to leave the
theatre. The theatre manager then called
the police who forcibly arrested, charged
and convicted Desmond for failure to pay
the extra penny in theatre tax required
for the downstairs seat. Desmond’s later
efforts to fi ght these charges proved unsuccessful as the case was framed as tax
evasion, instead of the true issue of racism that had been disguised under technicalities. Desmond’s legal challenge acted
as a spark for the Black community and
brought attention to the racial discrimination in Nova Scotia. This spark was the
fi rst step in bringing greater awareness
and movement around the issue of racial
equality in Canada.

Although Desmond passed away in
1965, her story has begun to receive
greater attention in recent years mainly
thanks to the efforts of her sister Wanda Robson. This attention fi nally led
to a posthumous free pardon from the
Nova Scotian government in 2010 for
Desmond’s conviction. The pardon was
granted by the Lieutenant Governor of
Nova Scotia Mayann Francis, the first
Black Nova Scotian to hold this position, and was accompanied by a public
declaration and apology from the then Premier.

Desmond’s passion for equality, activism, and justice mark her as an iconic
courageous Canadian who will always
have a place in the hearts and souls of
Canadians for years to come. That is why
in 2016, she was selected as the next Canadian to feature on Canada’s next regularly circulating $10 bank note by the
Minister of Finance. The design for her
bill was completely unique especially for
the vertical orientation of the banknote
which was a fi rst for Canada. The note
features Desmond’s portrait with a map
of the neighbourhood in Halifax where
Desmond’s salon was located. The other
side of the bill has a picture of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an
excerpt from the Canadian Charter of
Rights and Freedoms and an eagle feather which represent the history of Canada’s path to racial equality as well as how
far Canada has left to go.

Comments are closed.