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 VIOLA DESMOND, THE BLACK WOMAN WHO FOUGHT AGAINST SEGREGATION IN
CANADA   [https://portside.org/node/16697] 

 

 Adebe DeRango-Adem 
 February 27, 2018
Broadly
[https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/wj4b8x/viola-desmond-canada-10-dollar-bill-racial-segregation]


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 _ In 1946, Viola Desmond insisted on sitting in the whites-only
section of a Nova Scotia movie theater, and now she's being put on the
$10 bill for her bravery. _ 

 Illustration by Shannon Wright // Broadly, Drawing of new Viola
Desmond Canadian Ten Dollar Bill 

 

Nine years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of an American
bus, Viola Desmond refused to sit on the balcony of a Canadian movie
theater. 

Many people, even in Canada, don’t realize that the country has its
own history of slavery and racial segregation. And, until recently,
even fewer knew the story of Viola Desmond’s resistance. But her
legacy will be cemented this year: Desmond is set to become the first
Canadian woman to be featured on the $10 bill. 

Viola Irene Desmond was born in 1914 into an interracial family, which
was highly uncommon in early 20th-century Halifax. Nonetheless, both
her parents became active and prominent members of various community
organizations that championed racial justice, according to
the Canadian encyclopedia
[http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/viola-desmond/].

As an adult, Desmond built a career as a beautician and salon owner.
Around 1940, she started the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, where
she mentored dozens of young, mostly Black women who wanted to become
beauticians. She also created her own line of hair beauty products for
Black women that were sold at the salons started by her school’s
alumni. Perhaps having inherited her parents’ activism, her vision
was to give Black women professional opportunities not otherwise
available to them. 

Canada abolished slavery at the end of the 18th century. Still,
although never explicitly supported by Canadian law, racial
segregation was practiced
[http://www.blackhistorycanada.ca/events.php?themeid=7&id=9] throughout
Canada well into the mid 20th century, quietly enforced by businesses,
schools, and other institutions. Desmond’s actions, however, helped
to change that.

On one evening in November 1946, then 32-year-old Desmond made an
emergency stop in the town of New Glasgow after her car broke down en
route to a business meeting. While passing the time, she decided to
see a movie at a nearby theater called The Roseland. She bought a
ticket and was given one for the balcony area—the seating implicitly
reserved for non-white patrons. Not knowing the unspoken code of
conduct there, Desmond walked onto the main floor. “The usher came
up and said, 'Miss, you are sitting in the wrong seat, you can't sit
here, that seat is more expensive,' so Viola said, 'OK, I'll go and
pay the difference,'" Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson, recalled
[http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/viola-desmond-wanda-robson-black-history-month-1.3430629] to
CBC News last year. 

Desmond returned to the cashier and requested a ticket for the main
level. The cashier refused. She offered to pay the one-cent difference
for the main floor ticket. The cashier refused again. Realizing there
could be no reason for the cashier’s refusal other than the color of
her skin, Desmond decided to take a seat on the main floor anyway.
"But when the usher came again and said, 'I'm going to have to get a
manager.' Viola said, 'Get the manager. I'm not doing anything
wrong,'" Robson continued in her CBC News interview. 

Even after managers intervened, Desmond wouldn’t budge. Eventually,
the police had to drag her out of the theater and into jail, where she
was held overnight. 

Desmond woke to find she was charged with refusal to pay a one-cent
“amusement tax.” Without entitlement to any legal counsel, the
judge fined her $26. Race was never mentioned during the proceedings.
She lost the case and paid the fine.

“CANADA HAS TYPICALLY LIKED TO POSITION ITSELF AS THE INCLUSIVE,
TOLERANT NATION IN JUXTAPOSITION TO AMERICA AND ITS HISTORY OF RACIAL
VIOLENCE."

Although she lost her case, Desmond’s story ended up in many
Canadian newspapers, causing a cultural moment of reckoning with the
racist status quo. The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of
Coloured People raised money to fight Desmond’s conviction. Still,
Desmond lost her appeal. But her lawyer chose to donate his payment to
the NSAACP so they could continue fighting for Desmond and the broader
cause of racial justice. And they did. 

Finally, in 1954, all forms of segregation were made illegal in Nova
Scotia—in part due to Desmond’s refusal to move from her seat. It
wasn’t easy for Desmond to be at the center of so much attention,
though. After her conviction, Desmond eventually moved to New York
City and died there in 1965, at the age of 50.

Today, many wonder why Desmond didn’t go down in history the same
way Rosa Parks did. And many believe it’s because Canada is rarely
seen as a racial oppressor. As Jody Nyasha Warner, author of _Viola
Desmond Won't Be Budged_, said in an interview
[http://www.copahabitat.ca/en/blog/viola-desmond-truth-and-courage] with
Habitat for Learning: “Canada has typically liked to position itself
as the inclusive, tolerant nation in juxtaposition to America and its
history of racial violence. You see this, for example, in the way the
Underground Railroad story of Canada as a safe haven is repeated often
and well known, while the fact that slavery existed in Canada is
virtually unknown. And of course thinking of Viola’s story, we
imagine racial segregation as something that happened in the US but in
fact it was widely practiced in Canada as well.” 

In 2009, Desmond’s sister began the process of clearing Desmond’s
name by writing a letter to the mayor of New Glasgow asking that the
incident at Roseland Theater be acknowledged. The following year,
Desmond was issued a posthumous pardon and apology. 

But that wouldn’t be the extent of Canada’s acknowledgment of
Desmond. Fast forward to International Women’s Day in 2016, when the
Bank of Canada launched a public consultation to choose the first
Canadian woman to appear on the face of the Canadian $10 bill.
According to the bank, a committee went through 26,000 submissions and
whittled the pool down to five iconic Canadian women, from which
Desmond was chosen. In December, it was announced that Desmond would
appear on the bill, set to be released this year (although the exact
date has yet to be announced). 

"The last thing I'd like you to remember about Viola is that she was a
lady," Robson told
[http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/viola-desmond-bio-1.3886923] CBC News
on the day of the bill’s announcement. "If you wanted another person
other than the Queen to be on the bill, you've chosen the right
person." 

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