Viola Desmond-A Black Canadian Hero
She's been called the "Rosa Parks" of Canada but outside of activist circles the case of Viola Desmond and its history making repercussions aren't much known. A Black History month special.
It was a chilly December 1, 1955 day that Rosa Parks sat down where she wanted to on a Montgomery, AL bus and and jump started a movement which galvanized a nation.
But almost ten years before, Viola Desmond did the same for African-Canadians. Except it being Canada, to much less dramatic effect.
Viola Desmond was a young, attractive and elegant Halifax businesswoman and beautician who owned and operated a beauty school there. On November 8th, 1946, she was on her way to Sydney, NS for a meeting when she got caught in a blizzard in New Glasgow, NS and her car broke down.
After the local mechanic told her the problem couldn't be fixed until the next day she found a place to stay and decide to take in a flick at the local Roseland Theatre. She asked for a ticket for house seats, but the teller sold her a ticket for the balcony, which was the designated seating area for blacks in that town.
She was barely settled in the lower "Whites Only" house seats, when the manager appeared and ordered her up to to sit in balcony, When she indignantly refused, he called the police and she was arrested. Desmond was dragged from the theater and thrown in jail overnight. Bruised and angry, she sat upright all night and for the next 12 hours on the hard jail bench, a fierce sight in elbow length white gloves.
In the morning she was charged by the magistrate with "attempting to defraud the Federal Government" based on her refusal to pay the one cent amusement tax difference between the 3 cents charged to those sitting in the balcony and the 2 cents charged to those sitting downstairs.
Desmond then offered to pay the difference but the locals were bent on making their point and she was convicted of failing to pay the tax on the downstairs ticket. After a short trial, Viola was sentenced to a fine of $20 plus court costs and 30 days in prison.
Viola Desmond's arrest spurred the Afro-Canadian community into action. The new Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), founded only a year earlier by William and Pearleen Oliver, raised the money to pay her fine and fight her conviction. Carrie Best, the founder of Nova Scotia's first Black owned and operated newspaper publicized her story. Best was familiar with Desmond's situation. She'd been thrown out of the Roseland Theater herself four years earlier for refusing to sit in the balcony and unsuccessfully filed a damage suit against the theater's management.
Desmond's lawyer took the case to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, but her appeal lost on a technicality. She reappealed the case and won on a technicality.
By then, such was the attention generated by Desmond's case that the government of Nova Scotia had little choice but to dismantle its segregation laws and in 1954, finally completely repeal them. Viola Desmond, on behalf of movie goers of all colours, we salute you.
In December 1995, the Parliament of Canada officially recognized February as Black History Month, following a motion introduced by the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament, the Honourable Jean Augustine, M.P. of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, who at the time was Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister. The motion was carried unanimously by the House of Commons. (DJ)