Viola Desmond was a Black Nova Scotian businesswoman who challenged racial segregation at a film theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946. Her actions sparked the modern civil rights movement in Canada.
Desmond was born Viola Davis in 1914 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her parents, James Albert and Gwendolin Irene were active in the Black community in Halifax, and prominent members of a range of social circles and organisations. As a child, Desmond realised that there were no professional hair and skincare projects for Black women. She was determined to change this, especially when she was denied the opportunity to become a beautician in Halifax because of her race. Desmond trained as a beautician at the the Field Beauty Culture School in Montreal, Atlantic City before continuing her training at one of Madam C.J. Walker’s beauty schools in New York. After completing her training, she returned to Halifax to open Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture which catered to the Black community. Her clients included singer Portia White and Gwen Jenkins, who would later become the first black nurse in Nova Scotia.
Desmond’s beauty parlour was successful, and gained her a position of status and authority within the Black community. She opened a beauty school, the Desmond School of Beauty Culture to train women with the skills they would need to open their own business and go on to provide jobs for other Black women within their communities. Around 15 students graduated from the school a year. Desmond created a line of beauty products called ‘Vi’s Beauty Products’ and as her graduates set up their own beauty salons they sold Desmond’s products to their customers. She also marketed and sold them herself.
In 1946, Desmond was driving to a business meeting in Sydney, Nova Scotia when her car broke down in New Glasgow. The repairs would take hours, and Desmond decided to take a hotel room and see a movie to pass the time. Desmond bought a ticket at the Roseland Film Theatre, asking for a seat on the main floor. She did not know that the main floor was for whites only, and was given a ticket to the balcony instead. Defiant, Desmond sat in a seat on the main floor, and was approached by a manager who ordered her to move to the non-white area of the balcony. She refused, and was arrested by the police for her actions and dragged from the theatre, injuring her hip and knee. Desmond was put in a jail cell overnight, and sat there bold upright until the morning. The next day, she was charged with Attempt to Defraud the Federal Government for her refusal to pay a one cent amusement tax (this was the difference in price between a balcony and main floor ticket). Although race wasn’t explicitly mentioned, it was common knowledge in the Black community in New Glasgow that the Roseland Theatre was racially segregated. She was denied her right to legal advice and given the option of paying a fine of CA $20 (equivalent to $271 in 2016) and court costs of $6 or going to jail for 30 days. Desmond paid the fine and returned to Halifax.
Desmond’s husband, Jack had grown up in New Glasgow and was not surprised by her treatment at the Roseland. He told her to forget about the incident but she would not. Desmond asked for advice from the leaders of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, and they encouraged her to take action and fight the charge in court. Desmond was supported by the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) who raised money to fight her conviction. Carrie Best, the founder of The Clarion, the province’s second Black-owned and operated newspaper broke the story in her paper. Best had had a similar experience at the Roseland Theatre five years before and been unsuccessful in a civil suit against the theatre’s management. Desmond’s story would often grace the front page of The Clarion.
Desmond engaged Lawyer Frederick Bissett to fight her case. There had never been a ruling on the illegality of racial discrimination in hotels, theatres or restaurants in either province. Bassett fought against the criminal charges, but as they were for tax evasion not racial discrimination they were unsuccessful. Bassett also chose to file a civil lawsuit on the basis that Henry MacNeil and the Roseland Theatre had acted unlawfully when forcibly ejecting Desmond from the theatre. She would then be entitled to compensation for assault, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment. The suit didn’t make it to trail, and although Bissett applied to the Supreme Court to have Desmond’s criminal conviction put aside, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Maynard Brown Archibald ruled on the 20th of January 1947 ruled against Desmond. Bissett returned Desmond’s fees to the NSAACP.
The level of community support Desmond had received during her trial inspired members of the Nova Scotia’s Black population who saw that something could be done. Tired of enduring life as second class citizens, they began to mobilise for change and in 1954, segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia due to their efforts.
Following the trial, Desmond closed her business and moved to Montreal to enrol in a business college. She later settled in New York, USA. She died in 1965 at the age of 50. In 2000, Desmond and other Canadian civil rights activists were featured in a National Board of Canada documentary entitled Journey to Justice. There is also a documentary about her, Long Road to Justice: The Viola Desmond Story. In 2003, Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson began to tell her story of Viola Desmond which led to the publication of a book about Desmond’s experience Sister to Courage in 2010. That same year, Desmond was granted a posthumous free pardon by the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Mayann Francis, the first to be granted in Canada and the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice was established at Cape Breton University. Two years later, Canada Post issued a postage stamp featuring Desmond.
In February 2015, the provincial government declared the first Nova Scotia Heritage Day in her honour. Her portrait now hangs in the Government House in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In February 2016, she was featured by Heritage Canada’s Heritage Minute.