Nova Scotia Archives

Viola Irene Desmond

2015 Honouree, Nova Scotia Heritage Day


Viola (Davis) Desmond (b. 1914 — d. 1965)

Stand For Justice

"A People without knowledge of its true history ....is like a Tree without its roots"
— African Proverb

Viola (Davis) Desmond was a Nova Scotia-born African Canadian woman, beautician, teacher and entrepreneur from Halifax, who awakened Nova Scotia society to Human Rights issues in 1946. Viola took a stand by taking a seat in the 'main floor' section, as opposed to the segregated balcony of a New Glasgow movie theatre, and by doing so, changed the course of social justice history.


Family Background

The Davis family played an active role as part of the Halifax Black community during the post-World War One era; Viola was born into that family in 1914, and growing up as a bright young lady, noticed something that Black women wanted and needed to improve their self-image and affirm Black beauty culture — namely, she observed the lack of professional hair- and skin-care products available for Black women. This was an entrepreneurial opportunity that she was determined to fill and she did! In order to do this, she had to travel to New York City's Lalia College for beauticians, which had developed out of the legendary Madame C.J. Walker's beauty culture business. Madame Walker was the first Black woman millionaire in the United States, and Viola understood her business model. Learn more: www.madamewalker.net/

Madame Walker stated — "Don’t just build a business, build an industry." Viola Desmond took heed and eventually began to live her dream and follow her personal path to beauty culture success by:

  • Providing professional training by starting her unique cosmetic studio/beauty school for Black women.
  • Developing her own 'brand' line of specialized beauty products to provide custom service.
  • Using her individually-designed products in her teaching and in her students' studio practice.
  • Empowering her students and inspiring other Black women to start their own beauty culture businesses.
  • Distributing her products to various businesses through her students or by other Black women entrepreneurs.

Viola Desmond proved the value of her empowerment formula, and her business savvy was strong enough to establish the creation of "The Desmond Studio of Beauty Culture," which allowed her to expand her network, along with her graduates, to showcase a province-wide Black women beauty- culture industry that gradually extended its influence nationwide.

Viola Desmond showed leadership in many ways:

  • She was an assertive contemporary and positive role model for women.
  • She trained her graduates how to operate a viable business.
  • She influenced young Black women to be stylish and proud of their appearance.

Therefore, at a time when few women owned and operated independent businesses, she was admired as outstanding for her time. Her eager graduates began their own careers and joined the distribution network for Viola Desmond's brand of beauty products.


The Incident and Court Case

On 8 November 1946, Viola Desmond was driving to deliver her products to other beauty studios, when car trouble forced her to spend extra time in the town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, waiting for her car to be repaired. She decided to go and see a movie while waiting. After buying her ticket and sitting in the main section of the Roseland Theatre, she was told by an usher to move from her main-floor seat up to the balcony, which was designed as the 'Colored only' area or segregated section. She refused to move, apparently indicating that she was near-sighted, which required her to be closer to the movie screen. Consequently, after refusing the demands of the theatre manager to re-locate, the town police were brought in; she was arrested and jailed overnight. At court the next day, she was found guilty of defrauding the government of the one-cent difference between the three-cent sales tax levied on a downstairs ticket and the two-cent tax on a balcony ticket. After paying the twenty-dollar fine plus costs, she returned to Halifax, where she was soon contacted by members of the newly-formed civil-rights organization, the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who encouraged her to appeal her unjust case. She hired a lawyer and took the matter to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in Halifax, where unfortunately the judges ruled against her due to their findings of the law. Thus, the 1946 conviction remained on her record. Eventually, leaving her company and Canada for the United States, Viola Desmond moved to New York City, where she died in 1965 at the age of only 51 years old.


Steps to 'Righting the Wrong'

Viola Desmond had been denied the protection that one expects from the Canadian justice system. When justice did prevail, it was 64 years later. In 2010, the government of Nova Scotia formally apologized to Viola Desmond's remaining family. A Royal Prerogative of Mercy ("Free Pardon") was also awarded by the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, The Honourable Mayann E. Francis, which acknowledged that Desmond was innocent and her conviction had been in error, therefore 'righting the wrong.' This unique course of action became the first of its kind in the history of Canada.

During Black History Month in February 2012, Canada Post issued a commemorative Black Heritage postage stamp recognizing Viola Desmond’s stand for justice; the stamp was unveiled in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.

For decades, Desmond's experience and ordeal inspired the emergence of Human Rights legislation and 'fair practice' laws throughout Canada; her court case is still used in academic studies of today.

Beginning in 2015, Nova Scotia has legislated the third Monday in every February as a statutory holiday to be known as 'Nova Scotia Heritage Day.' The first celebration of this holiday, on 16 February 2015, is dedicated in Viola Desmond's honour and pays tribute to this remarkable women. As Dr. Martin Luther King Junior wrote in 1963, "…injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." For that, Viola Desmond remains a noteworthy role model and a source of pride for all Canadians.


Conclusion

The Viola Desmond Story is a thought-provoking saga for all individuals to explore, and to learn from her conscientious stand. It is important we ensure her legacy lives on in books, films, visual art, drama, legal journals, tributes, newspapers, archival material, in human rights research, in political science debates, and in race relations studies. The official government apology and the 'Free Pardon' is a clear indication of her vindication, and an extraordinary remedy considered only in the rarest of circumstances. It is the first ever granted in Nova Scotia history and holds the distinction of being the first given posthumously in Canada.



Dr. Henry V. Bishop is a well-known multi-disciplinary artist, musician and author. Born in Weymouth Falls, Digby County, Nova Scotia, he is a direct descendant of both the Black Loyalists and migrant workers from Barbados. He is a graduate of NSCAD University, with a Visual Communications degree specializing in Graphic Design and Child Psychology. He is also the first African Nova Scotian to receive an Honourary Doctorate of Fine Art from NSCAD