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Women in History: Viola Desmond

In honour of Black History Month, Women’s Post wanted to take a moment to honour a woman who was not afraid to take a stand by taking a seat in the ‘white’s only’ section of a local Nova Scotia theatre; Viola Desmond.

Desmond was a successful businesswoman in Halifax and the first black woman to set up a hair salon in Nova Scotia in 1937. On Nov. 8, 1946, she was traveling to Sydney to sell her popular line of hair products and her car broke down in New Glasgow. Desmond decided to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre and, after requesting to sit in the lower level of the theatre, was subsequently given a ticket on the balcony. She thought it was a mistake and returned to the booth to exchange her ticket, only to be told by the cashier: “I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.” Desmond decided to sit in the lower level seats anyway, and was subsequently arrested for doing so.

She spent the night in jail and was charged for tax evasion. The argument? Balcony tickets charged an extra penny in taxes.  Desmond was convicted and forced to pay a fine for $26, which was quite a lot of money at that time. She later sought support from the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) and made two unsuccessful appeals to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Desmond was posthumously pardoned on April 15, 2010 and has been nominated and chosen to be on the $10 Canadian bill, which will come into effect as of 2018.

Desmond was born on July 6, 1914 into a large family that was active in the community. Her parents were James Albert and Gwendolin Irene Davis, with her father black and her mother white, unusual for the time. Desmond was raised to believe she could achieve her dreams and set out to open a beauty salon once she reached adulthood. Due to her heritage, she wasn’t allowed to train in Halifax to become a beautician and attended school in Montreal, Atlanta City and New York. She then returned to Halifax and opened a hair salon there.

Desmond went on to set up the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, which trained black women who weren’t allowed to attend other schools. She provided women with skills to open their own businesses and further provided jobs for black women in their own communities. Desmond also began Vi’s Beauty Products, a line of hair products for black women. Eventually, she opened a combined barbershop and hairdressing salon with her husband, Jack Desmond on Gottingen Street.

After the failed attempts to appeal her case against Roseland Theatre, Desmond closed her business and enrolled in business school in Montreal. She died in 1965 in New York at 50 years old and never received a pardon while she was living from the Canadian government.

Desmond beat out thousands of contenders who were also nominated to be on the $10 bill, and her name being honoured with such high esteem is well deserved. She stood up for what was right when the stakes were high, and proceeded to pursue justice even when she could not achieve her goal. Desmond is truly a heroine because of her utter refusal to simply accept a blatant act of racism and her willingness to use an unjust legal system to make real change.

That is a woman worth celebrating.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary: Canada’s first African American female editor

“I have broken the editorial ice.”

This famous quote was spoken by the first Canadian African American female editor, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, in 1853 when she started her anti-slavery newspaper, Provincial Freeman.

The Mackenzie House (82 Bond St.) featured Shadd throughout the month of February for black history month, allowing kids and families to print their own copy of her newspaper as part of the historical tour. A presentation is also offered year-round to school groups on Shadd’s life.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary. Courtesey of National Archives of Canada
Mary Ann Shadd Cary. Courtesey of National Archives of Canada

Shadd was born into an activist family in Wilmington, Delaware that helped run the Underground Railroad. They moved to Windsor, Ont. in 1850 after the Fugitive Slave Law — which ordered all slaves returned to their masters and charged those who helped slaves run away — was passed. She opened the first racially-integrated school in Windsor and also created educational booklets about why African Americans should move to Canada for a better life.

Public Officer at the Mackenzie House, Danielle Urquhart said, “Mary Ann had attended a conference in 1851 at St. Lawrence Hall. She was impressed by Toronto. She felt it wasn’t as racist and it never had segregated communities. Toronto was also not a border town where you might be caught by slave catchers which made it safer.”

Photo provided by City of Toronto, Mackenzie House
Photo provided by City of Toronto, Mackenzie House

In 1853, Shadd founded the Provincial Freeman, Canada’s first anti-slavery newspaper and the first newspaper to be run by an African American woman in North America. The byline of the newspaper was “Devoted to antislavery, temperence, and general literature” and she advocated all three topics passionately. The newspaper was a daily digest, which included interest articles, poems, and tips on how to acculturate oneself to the Canadian lifestyle and weather. “She also connected family members because people became separated when they were traveling on the underground railway. You could run an ad and find your family once you arrived,” said Urquhart.

When Shadd first released the newspaper, she changed her name to M.A Shadd because she anticipated she would be met with resistance as a female editor. “She received death threats,” said Urquhart. “For her personal safety, she brought a friend named S.R Ward to act as a figurehead, but she kept publishing. She remained the editor and when things calmed down, she resumed her public role as the sole publisher.”

Urquhart explains that Shadd was not only facing racism as an editor of a newspaper, but also received judgement as a woman in a leadership role in the mid 1800’s. Shadd did not back down to though.

In 1856, Shadd married a Toronto barber named Thomas Cary. They had a very progressive relationship and he took on most of the familial duties so that Shadd could follow her dreams. “He would be at home with the kids while she went on lecture tours,” said Urquhart. While Shadd was on lecture tours her sister, Amelia Cisco Shadd, who was also a part of the antislavery movement, ran the newspaper.

Photo provided by City of Toronto, Mackenzie House
Photo provided by City of Toronto, Mackenzie House

William Lyon Mackenzie, the namesake of the house, was also a publisher at the same time as Sadd and advocated for social justice.“They were publishing at the same time and we were equipped to do this with a printing press and she lived in this neighbourhood. We wanted to figure out a way to interpret black history and she was a great choice,” said Urquhart.

Sadd was an intelligent and brave woman who was unwilling to compromise herself despite obstacles of race and gender. She became a teacher, a journalist, and went on to get a law degree at age 60. Shadd is a heroine to all women trying to make a difference in this world. She also paved the way for future female African American journalists, as exemplified in when she proclaimed courageously: “Shake off your shackles and come to Canada.”