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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.