Viola Desmond (née Davis) was
born on July 6, 1914, one of fifteen children of James Albert and Gwendolyn
Irene (née Johnson) Davis. Viola grew up with parents who were active in the black community in Halifax,
despite the fact that her mother was a non-visible-minority and her father
black, unusual for the time.
Viola taught school in the
black community of Preston. While teaching she read an article about Madam C.J.
Walker who had developed a business empire of hair-dressing schools and salons
in the United States. Madam Walker is recognized as the first self made female
millionaire in the US. With Madam C.J. Walker as heridol Viola
set out to fill a need for a black hairdressing facility for in Halifax. Of African descent, Viola was not allowed to
train to become a beautician in Halifax, so she studied in Montreal and also in
the USA. . Her clients
included Portia White and New Glasgow native Carrie Best, (the owner and publisher
of The Clarion, a newspaper for Blacks). Viola’s Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture was the only
shop in Halifax where coloured women could have their hair done, as a result
she did a very brisk trade. Viola was noted for her cheerfulness, positive
outlook on life and sympathetic treatment of all her clientele.
Viola continued her studies
in the USA in cosmetology and began making her own beauty products under the
trade name Sepia, she also made wigs for her customers.
Viola’s products became known
in other Black communities in the province and as a result requested products
were delivered by mail. After the end of WWII she bought a car and learned to
drive. On November 8, 1946 she decided to go to Sydney to deliver some orders
and to conduct some business related to
her products. Her trip would have taken her through all the small towns on the
main road. What today is a 4 ½ hour trip could have taken up to 7 or 8 hours
including a ferry passage across the Canso Straight.
Arriving in New Glasgow
(about ¼ of the way to Sydney) she had a problem with her car. The garage
mechanic advised he needed a part which would arrive the next morning. She
decided to take in a movie to pass the time.
In the theatre Viola asked
for one down please, was given a ticket and her change and proceeded to sit in
the lower floor near the screen. Within a couple of minutes the usher advised
her she was in the wrong section. “Your ticket is for up in the balcony”. The
theatre was segregated, Blacks were only allowed in the balcony.
Viola returned to the cashier
and asked to exchange her ticket for the lower floor. She was told “We don’t
sell downstairs tickets to you people”. Viola understood fully at that point
and left the change on the counter and went back to her seat. The usher told
her she must move or the manager would be called. Viola refused to move,
protesting that she had done nothing wrong. Eventually the manager called the
police. The policeman and the manager man-handled Viola out of the theatre and
she was taken to jail where she remained overnight.
The next morning Viola was
taken to court and appeared before the judge with the theatre manager, the
cashier and the usher as witnesses against her. No mention was made of colour
and Viola was fined $20.00 and $6.00 costs OR to serve 30 days in jail. The
charge was for not paying the one cent difference in provincial amusement tax
between the upstairs and downstairs tickets. Viola was not advised of her right
to a lawyer, her right to question the witnesses, or thjat she could have a
stay of trial.
Viola returned home to
Halifax with badly bruised arms and legs. Her doctor told her she should see a
lawyer about the incident, as did her friend Pearline Oliver. Mrs. Oliver was a well known strong supporter
of racial equality as was her husband Rev William Oliver. Rev. Oliver was the
only Black Chaplain in the Canadian Army in WW II.
An appeal of the case
eventually reached the NS supreme court and was dismissed on a technicality.
One of the justices remarked:
“One wonders if the manager
of the theatre who laid the complaint was so zealous because of a bona fide
belief 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.”
Viola was asked to become a
spokesperson with the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured
People. She declined and continued with her hairdressing business and with the
class of eleven students that she was teaching at that time.
Viola continued with her
hairdressing salon for a few more years and then left to study business in Montreal. She then moved to
New York and started a business as actor’s
Viola died in her New York
apartment February 7 1965 of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage
In 2010, the Province of Nova
Scotia posthumously granted Viola a Royal Prerogative of Free Mercy Pardon and
apologized to Viola’s family for her wrongful conviction.
In 2012, Desmond was
portrayed on a commemorative stamp issued by Canada Post.
On February 2, 2016, featured
Desmond in a Heritage Minute.
On July 7, 2016, a Halifax
harbour ferry was launched bearing her name
On December 8, 2016, she was
chosen as the first Canadian woman to appear on a Canadian ten dollar bank note
to be issued in late 2018.