1914 - 1951
Civil Rights Activist
Viola Davis Desmond was born on July 6, 1914 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The beautiful and elegant African-Canadian woman owned and operated a successful beauty parlour and beauty college in Halifax. She led a relatively unassuming life until one particular day when she held on tight to her convictions and stood up to the world. What she did became one of the most publicized incidents of racial discrimination in Canadian history.
On a cold and blustery day, November 8, 1946, as Viola Desmond drove from Sydney to Halifax for a meeting, the weather worsened until it became a full-blown Canadian blizzard. As if the weather wasn't enough, her car broke down in town called New Glasgow.
The local mechanic took a look at her car and shook his head. He told her he could not repair it until the next day. A resourceful woman, Rosa booked herself into a local inn and looked around. What better way to wait out a blizzard than to catch a flick at the local movie house! Her decision was to alter the course of her life forever.
Viola made her way to the Roseland Theatre, stepped up to the wicket, and asked to purchase a ticket for house seats. Instead, the teller sold her a ticket for the balcony. Unbeknownst to Viola, the house seats were designated for whites only. The balcony was where blacks were to sit.
Viola made her way into the theatre and settled into a seat on the main floor. Before long, the manager approached and ordered her to move to the balcony.
Indignant, Viola refused. Outraged, the manager called the police who immediately arrested her, dragged her from the theatre, and placed her in a jail cell to spend the night.
Bruised and enraged, with her immaculate elbow-length white gloves on herhands, Viola sat primly upright on the hard bench in her cold jail cell the entire night, a total of 12 grueling hours.
In the morning, she was brought before a magistrate who charged her with Attempt to Defraud the Federal Government based upon her refusal to pay the one cent amusement tax difference between the 3 cents charged to balcony patrons and the 2 cents charged to main floor patrons.
Viola immediately offered to pay the difference. But the lawmakers of the time wished to make an example of her. They convicted her for failing to pay the tax. When the short trial was over, Viola received a fine of $20.00, which she immediately paid. But there was a principle at stake, so she challenged the charge in court.
The crown made strong arguments against her. They insisted this was a case of tax evasion and argued that the retail sales tax was calculated based on the price of the theatre ticket. After all, it was not the theatre's fault they could only sell Viola, a black woman, a less expensive balcony ticket. It was Viola who insisted upon sitting in the more expensive main floor
Throughout her trial, no one admitted that Viola Desmond was Black and that the theatre maintained a racist seating policy. No, best to stickk to the facts - the trial was simply about tax evasion and nothing more.
After a brief trial, Viola was found guilty of the charge and additionally fined court costs plus an additional 30 days in jail. All for the sake of a movie seat and a penny.
Attempts were subsequently made to overturn the conviction, but each one failed and the conviction was upheld. Her lawyer returned Viola's fees. Viola used the money to create a fund to support the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP).
Having lost and done what she could to stand firm to her own convictions, Viola dismantled her beauty business and moved to Montreal where she enrolled in a business college. Afterwards she moved to New York where she lived until her death in 1951.
The case has become one of the most notorious civil rights cases in Canada and she received great fame. She was dubbed with the monniker "Canada's Rosa Sparks".
On April 14th, 2010, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Mayann Francis, on the advice of the premier of the province, invoked the Royal Prerogative and granted Viola Desmond a posthumous pardon.
Viola Desmond is a true Canadian heroine!