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Black History Month in Canada… Viola Davis Desmond

Viola Davis Desmond took a courageous stand against racial discrimination in Nova Scotia in 1946.

Viola Desmond 1914-1965

Viola Davis Desmond’s Stand Against Racial Discrimination

Viola Irene Desmond (née Davis), businesswoman, civil libertarian (born 6 July 1914 in Halifax, NS; died 7 February 1965 in New York, NY). Viola Desmond built a career and business as a beautician and was a mentor to young Black women in Nova Scotia through her Desmond School of Beauty Culture. It is, however, the story of her courageous refusal to accept an act of racial discrimination that provided inspiration to a later generation of Black persons in Nova Scotia and in the rest of Canada. In December 2016, it was announced that Desmond would be the first Canadian woman depicted on the face of a Canadian banknote — the $10 note in a series of bills released in 2018.

Viola Desmond was brought up in a large family with 10 siblings. Her parents were highly regarded within the Black community in Halifax. Her father, James Albert Davis, was raised in a middle-class Black family and had worked for a number of years as a stevedore before establishing himself as a barber. Her mother, Gwendolin Irene Davis (née Johnson) was the daughter of a White minister and his wife, who had moved to Halifax from New Haven, Connecticut. Although racial mixing was not uncommon in early 20th-century Halifax, intermarriage was rare. Nonetheless, her parents were accepted into the Black community and became active and prominent members of various community organizations.

Motivated by her parents’ example of hard work and community involvement, Desmond aspired to success as an independent businesswoman. After a short period teaching in two racially-segregated schools for Black students, she began a program of study at the Field Beauty Culture School in Montréal, one of the few such institutions in Canada at the time that accepted Black applicants. She continued her training in Atlantic City and in New York. Desmond opened Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in Halifax, catering to the Black community.

Desmond quickly found success. She opened a beauty school, the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, to train women and expanded her business across the province. (Desmond created a line of beauty products, which were sold at venues owned by graduates of her beauty school.) Aware of her obligation to her community, Desmond created the school in order to provide training that would support the growth of employment for young Black women. Enrolment in Desmond’s school grew rapidly, including students from New Brunswick and Québec. As many as 15 students graduated from the program each year.

Although racism was not officially entrenched in Canadian society Black persons in Canada, and certainly in Nova Scotia, were aware that an unwritten code constrained their lives. Sometimes the limits were difficult to foresee. In a way, the “unofficial” character of Canadian racism made it more difficult to navigate.

On the evening of 8 November 1946, Desmond made an unplanned stop in the small community of New Glasgow after her car broke down en route to a business meeting in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Told that the repair would take a number of hours, she arranged for a hotel room and then decided to see a movie to pass the time. At the Roseland Theatre, Desmond requested a ticket for a seat on the main floor. The ticket seller handed Desmond a ticket to the balcony instead, the seating generally reserved for non-White customers. Walking into the main floor seating area, she was challenged by the ticket-taker, who told her that her ticket was for an upstairs seat, where she would have to move. Thinking that a mistake had been made, Desmond returned to the cashier and asked her to exchange the ticket for one downstairs. The cashier refused, saying, “I’m sorry but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.” Realizing that the cashier was referring to the color of her skin, Desmond decided to take a seat on the main floor.

Desmond was then confronted by the manager, Henry MacNeil, who argued that the theatre had the right to “refuse admission to any objectionable person.” Desmond pointed out that she had not been refused admission and had in fact been sold the ticket, which she still held in her hand. She added that she had attempted to exchange it for a main floor ticket and was willing to pay the difference in cost but had been refused. When she declined to leave her seat, a police officer was called. Desmond was dragged out of the theatre, injuring her hip and knee in the process, and taken to jail. There she was met by the Elmo Langille, chief of police, and MacNeil — the pair left together, returning an hour later with a warrant for Desmond’s arrest. She was then held in a cell overnight. Shocked and frightened, she maintained her composure and, as she related later, sat bolt upright all night long.

In the morning, Desmond was brought to court and charged with attempting to defraud the provincial government based on her alleged refusal to pay a one cent amusement tax (i.e., the difference in tax between upstairs and downstairs ticket prices). Even though she had indicated when she was confronted at the theatre that she was willing to pay the difference between the two ticket prices and that her offer had been refused, the judge chose to fine her $26. [This amount had the buying power of $352.18 in 2018.] Six of those dollars were awarded to the manager of the Roseland Theatre, who was listed in the court proceedings as the prosecutor. Throughout the trial, Desmond was not provided with counsel or informed that she was entitled to any. Magistrate Roderick MacKay was the only legal official in the court; no crown attorney was present.

At no point in the proceedings was the issue of race mentioned. Still, it was clear that Desmond’s real offense was to violate the implicit rule that Black persons were to sit in the balcony seats, segregated from White persons on the main floor. When asked about the incident by the Toronto Daily Star, MacNeil maintained that there was no official stipulation that Black persons could not sit on the main floor. It was “customary,” he said, for Black persons to sit together on the balcony. Nonetheless, it was common knowledge among the Black community in New Glasgow that seating at the Roseland Theatre was racially segregated.

Desmond’s husband, Jack, had grown up in New Glasgow and was not surprised when Viola told him about her treatment at the Roseland. Like many other Black Nova Scotians who had grown accustomed to the racist attitudes that prevailed in the province, he was inclined to let the issue rest. “Take it to the Lord with a prayer,” was his suggestion. Others in the community were less accepting; the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) raised money to fight her conviction, and Carrie Best, the founder of The Clarion, the province’s second Black-owned and operated newspaper, took a special interest in the case. Best had had a similar experience at the Roseland Theatre five years earlier and had unsuccessfully filed a civil suit against the theatre’s management. The Clarion closely covered Desmond’s story — often on the front page.

Given the ambiguity of the situation, Frederick Bissett, Desmond’s White lawyer, chose not to take on the violation of Desmond’s rights: neither her basic civil rights nor her rights to a fair trial with competent legal representation (see also Civil Liberties). Instead, Bissett had the court issue a writ identifying Desmond as the plaintiff in a civil suit that named MacNeil and the Roseland Theatre Co. Ltd as defendants. It sought to establish that MacNeil had acted unlawfully when he forcibly ejected Desmond from the theatre, which would entitle her to compensation on the grounds of assault, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment.

The suit never made it to trial, and Bissett later applied to the Supreme Court to have the criminal conviction put aside. The case was considered by Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Maynard Brown Archibald, who, on 20 January 1947, ruled against Desmond on the grounds that the decision of the original magistrate should have been appealed to the County Court. As the 10-day deadline for filing an appeal to the original conviction had passed, the conviction stood.

Subsequent to the Supreme Court decision, legal action on the matter ceased. Bissett did not bill his client, which allowed the NSAACP to use the funds raised for legal fees to continue their fight against segregation in Nova Scotia. Change didn’t happen quickly, and it is difficult to say whether Desmond’s experience had a direct effect on the quest for racial equality in the province. Nonetheless, her choice to resist the status quo, and the level of community support she received (e.g., from The Clarion and the NSAACP), reveals a mobilization for change among members of Nova Scotia’s Black population who were no longer willing to endure life as second-class citizens. In 1954, segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia thanks in large part to the courageous determination of Desmond and others like her who fought to be treated as equal human beings.

It is difficult to know what Viola Desmond felt about her brave stand and its aftermath. Eventually, and perhaps due to her experience with the Nova Scotia legal system, her marriage fell apart. She subsequently decided to abandon her business and move to Montréal. She died on 7 February 1965 in New York, NY.

Viola Desmond honored with her image on the Canadian Ten-Dollar Bank Note.
Viola Desmond honored with her image on the Canadian Ten-Dollar Bank Note. (L’encre Noir)

Today’s Sources:

* The Canadian Encyclopedia                                                      

* CBC News Canada                                                          

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December 2013 and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (, to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

15 thoughts on “Black History Month in Canada… Viola Davis Desmond”

      1. My internet access has become seriously limited. I’m unable to like and comment on as many posts as I would like. I apologize for seeming to lose interest in your blog. I can only access my WordPress account on library computers. I am still able to read posts, I’m just not able to do the usual things because I can’t log in.

        Thank you for helping to enlighten people in these dark times (in relation to education and compassion.

        Peace, John.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. It’s basically a matter of planned obsolescence. People with limited resources have our voices quieted down a bit since the more you have, the more likely you are to obey the corporate rulers. They love obedience.

            Obviously, there’s no logical reason why I’m unable to log into my blog, have difficulty reading e-mails (unable to scroll down past what I can initially see), can almost never attach photos to e-mails, have difficulty posting on Twitter and get kicked offline a few times a day while using my iPad. I have no options other using computers at public libraries. I spend much less time online since this happened. Every time my access has deteriorated there was an update whether it was my e-mail carrier, WordPress or Twitter.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. Now you have a reason to visit Canada (late in 2018) and collect one of those lovely $10 bills, JoAnn! The person whose picture has been on our $10 bill since I was a kid (and likely before that) was Sir John A. Macdonald, our first Prime Minister. So putting Viola on that bill is an amazing honor for her and all of our visible minorities.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, a great honor for minorities and women. I’m so glad Canada is doing this.

        There were designs/plans about putting Harriet Tubman on the US $20 bill. The Trump administration has nixed the idea.

        I can hardly believe how my country is regressing, right before my eyes.



    1. Thanks, Opher, I think so too. In tomorrow’s “Believe It Or Not” post, there’s a story about a Canadian Aboriginal hero. I’m thinking about a series of posts featuring Aboriginal History In Canada.

      Liked by 1 person

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