Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond

February 7, 2021 | Black History Month, G-BLOG

Viola Desmond
Viola Desmond
Photo Credit: Still Standing/CBC

On February 7, 1965, Viola Desmond died. 

She is remembered as a dedicated, courageous woman who fought segregation in Nova Scotia. 

Desmond was born in Halifax, N.S. in 1914. When she graduated from high school she worked as a teacher in Black schools. This was one of a few employment opportunities open to a Black woman. 

Desmond wanted to open a beauty salon, but Nova Scotia’s beauty school did not accept Black students. 

Not to be deterred, Desmond studied to be a hairdresser and beautician in Montreal and the U.S. 

She went on to open her own salon and beauty school in Halifax. She also created hair care products and a line of cosmetics for Black women.

In November of 1946, Desmond experienced car trouble on her way from Halifax to Sydney, NS. She stopped overnight in New Glasgow, N.S., and went to a movie at the Roseland Theatre.

She sat in a mainfloor seat, unaware that the theatre was segregated and as a Black person, she was to sit in the balcony. 

She refused to move to another seat and was dragged from the theatre. She was arrested, held in jail overnight, and charged with tax evasion. 

That charge, based on the one cent difference in tax between floor and balcony seats, was the only legal infraction that could be used to justify placing Desmond in jail. 

Unlike the Jim Crow laws of the U.S., segregation in Nova Scotia was unwritten law.

Desmond was tried, and convicted, and she appealed her conviction with the assistance of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. 

The Nova Scotia Supreme Court dismissed her appeal on a technicality. 

Although she lost her appeal, Desmond’s case sparked a protest that led to the end of segregation in public facilities in Nova Scotia and helped inspire Canada’s civil right movement. 

Desmond passed away suddenly in 1965 in New York City. She is buried in Halifax’s Camp Hill Cemetery.

Desmond was honoured after her death. 

In 2010, Mayann Francis, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, pardoned Desmond and removed her conviction from the historical record. 

In 2018, Desmond became the first Canadian woman featured on a regularly circulating Canadian $10 bill.


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