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The Currency of Viola Desmond  by Evelyn C. White
The Currency of Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond (right) will appear on the $10 Canadian bank note in 2018. This article, which appeared in Herizons Spring 2015 Special Issue on Women who Changed Canada, pays tribute to the civil rights icon.

Viola Desmond was a successful beautician and entrepreneur who, in 1946, challenged racial prejudice in a Nova Scotia movie theatre. Born and raised in Halifax, Desmond battled racial segregation nearly a decade before American civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white rider in 1955.

On November 8, 1946, Desmond was on a trip to promote her line of black beauty products when her car stalled in New Glasgow, N.S. While she waited for her vehicle to be repaired, she decided to see a movie, The Dark Mirror, starring Olivia de Havilland, at the local Roseland Theatre.

Desmond purchased a 30-cent ticket and took a seat on the main floor. She was stunned when an usher appeared and announced that she needed to
move. The usher stated that Desmond’s ticket was valid only for upstairs seats. Downstairs tickets cost 40 cents. Desmond, who found it difficult to see at a distance, returned to the cashier to pay the difference for a closer main-floor seat.

The cashier told Desmond she was unable to sell downstairs tickets to “you people.” Desmond returned to her seat, and the usher again asked her to move. The prosperous entrepreneur then understood that the Roseland was segregated. Blacks were relegated to the balcony, a grimy area in the movie house.

Desmond was forcibly removed from the theatre by police, arrested and jailed. The next morning, without being informed that she had a right to legal counsel, she was convicted of defrauding the provincial government of the amusement tax portion of her ticket. The tax was three cents on a downstairs ticket and two cents upstairs. The unpaid difference was one cent. Desmond was fined $20 as well as $6 in court costs and released.

Carrie Best, the pioneering owner of The Clarion newspaper that served the African-Nova Scotian community, championed Desmond and publicized her case. Best condemned Desmond’s arrest as disgraceful, likening it to “Jim-Crowism,
at its basest.”

Buoyed by Best’s advocacy, as well as the support of the Halifax Cornwallis Street Baptist Church and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), Desmond decided to contest her conviction. The NSAACP backed Desmond’s appeal to quash the conviction in the provincial
Supreme Court. In 1947, Desmond’s bid was dismissed on a technicality.

Although her conviction stood, the case nonetheless sparked a protest that led to the end of segregation in public facilities in Nova Scotia. Desmond was a civil rights leader whose efforts predated the Alabama bus boycott that brought to prominence Rosa Parks and a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr.

William Oliver, an influential black minister in Halifax, noted that Desmond’s activism had “enhanced the prestige of the Negro community throughout the province.” It laid the groundwork for future struggles against racial discrimination and injustice in Canada.

Desmond, who had been refused entry to Nova Scotia beautician schools, trained in Montreal and New York. As well as operating Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture on Halifax’s Gottingen Street, she created a beauty school where African-Canadian women trained and developed a line of Black beauty
products.

After her trial, she continued working as a beautician. While on a trip to New York City she died suddenly at age 50. She was buried in a simple plot, at Camp Hill Cemetery near the city’s Public Gardens. Today, the grave of Desmond, who was pardoned by the Nova Scotia government in 2010,
is marked by an official heritage marker.

This article appeared in Herizons Special History Issue "50 Women Who Changed Canada" published in Spring 2015. Order the whole Special History issue here.