Birthday: July 6, 1914
Nationality: American, Canadian
Died At Age: 50
Sun Sign: Cancer
Born Country: Canada
Born in: Halifax, Nova Scotia
Famous as: Businesswoman
Civil Rights Activists
Spouse/Ex-: Jack Desmond
father: James Albert Davis
mother: Gwendolin Irene Davis
siblings: Alan Davis, Constance Scott, Emily Clyke, Eugenie Parris, Gordon Davis, Helen Fline, John Davis, Olive Scott, Wanda Robson
Died on: February 7, 1965
City: Halifax, Canada
education: Bloomfield High School
Who was Viola Desmond?
Viola Desmond was a Canadian citizen of mixed race, who championed the cause of equal rights for people with dark skin, in early 20th century. Her father was black and her mother was white, which was not very common in Canada in those days. Though Canada had no laws that segregated the black people from the white, it was a norm for the blacks to not mix with the whites. Her husband was black and worked as a barber. Viola wanted black women to have access to beauty salons and beauty products that were only available to white people at that time. She completed her beauty training and opened her own beauty salon that catered to the requirements of black people. She also launched her own beauty products and became an entrepreneur in her own right. She came into prominence as an activist when she refused to vacate a seat in a theater that was reserved for white people. Although she was charged with tax evasion, since she was sold a ticket for a cheaper seat reserved for black people, she gave rise to a movement of black people who fought for equal rights.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born Viola Irene Davis, on July 6, 1914, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, to James Albert Davis and Gwendolin Irene Davis. She belonged to a large family with 10 children. Her father, who worked as a stevedore before opening a barbershop, was black, while her mother was white.
Her parents were highly regarded and active among the black community in her hometown. Viola took up a teaching job in a school for black children. However, she wanted to address the needs of the black community by introducing beauty products for people with dark skin. Since people of African descent were not allowed to join beautician training in Viola’s hometown, she moved to Montréal, Atlantic City, to start training as a beautician at the ‘Field Beauty Culture School’ and finally completed her training from one of Madam CJ Walker’s beauty schools in New York.
She had a sister named Wanda Robson, who later wrote a book about activism in the family, titled ‘Sister to Courage,’ highlighting the life of Viola.
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After completing her training, she returned to Halifax to open her own hair salon called ‘Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture.’ Her salon catered particularly to the black community. She also opened her own school for beautician training, known as the ‘Desmond School of Beauty Culture.’ This was done to prevent any more discrimination against black people in her field. She went on to start her own line of beauty products that catered particularly to the needs of the black community. Each year, as many as 15 black women graduated from her school and started their own ventures that provided further job opportunities to the black community.
After getting married, she joined her husband’s barbershop to make it a combined barbershop and hairdressing salon. She started making several business trips to popularize and sell her beauty products. It was on one of those trips that she faced racial discrimination in a theater in New Glasgow and went to court after being charged with tax evasion.
Soon, she decided to close her business and move to Montréal to join a business college.
Awards & Achievements
Viola Desmond is remembered as a citizen who stood for a cause. She was featured in a commemorative stamp released by ‘Canada Post’ in 2012.
In December 2016, she became the first non-royal Canadian woman to be featured on a Canadian $10 note. She also became the first colored woman to have been featured in a ‘Historica Canada Heritage Minute’ short film that year.
In January 2018, she was named a ‘National Historic Person’ by the Canadian government.
She married Jack Desmond, who owned a barbershop on Gottingen Street. He had been brought up in Glasgow and was accustomed to be treated badly by white-skinned people. However, Viola was a strong supporter of the black movement to demand equal rights.
In November 1946, she refused to vacate a seat reserved for the whites in a movie theater in New Glasgow. She was then forcibly removed, put under arrest for 12 hours, and fined $20. She had to spend a night in a prison cell and injured her hip in the process. She was neither informed about her legal right to a lawyer nor granted bail.
When she told her husband about the incident, he advised her to forget about it. However, she gained the support of the church and decided to fight her case. Since she was sold a cheaper ticket for the area reserved for the blacks, she was charged with tax evasion of one cent, which was the difference in the cost of tickets for the whites and the blacks. However, the actual reason for her arrest was not the difference in cost, but the fact that she had refused to vacate a seat reserved for the whites.
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She approached the ‘Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’ (NSAACP) and hired a lawyer to fight a case of racial discrimination. However, the government insisted that it was a case of tax evasion.
Though she lost her case, her determination galvanized the black community in Nova Scotia and encouraged them to fight for their rights. The lawyer who fought her case donated his fees to the ‘NSAACP,’ which put the money to good use. She was asked to continue her fight for the cause, but she preferred to concentrate on her beauty school and business.
Her marriage ended soon after. Following this, she moved to Montréal and ultimately settled in New York, US. She was 50 years old when she died of gastrointestinal hemorrhage in February 1965. Her body was put to rest at the ‘Camp Hill Cemetery’ in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
64 years later, in April 2010, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia invoked the ‘Royal Prerogative’ to posthumously pardon Viola Desmond, granting her full remedy and accepting that the conviction was an error.
The first ‘Nova Scotia Heritage Day,’ celebrated in February 2015, was dedicated to her. Her portrait has also been put up in the ‘Government House’ in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Viola Desmond is often compared to Rosa Parks, who had deliberately occupied a bus seat that was reserved for white people and had given rise to the ‘Civil Rights Movement’ in the US. Although segregation based on color was enforced by law in the US, there was no such law in Canada at that time. However, there was an understanding among both the whites and the blacks to keep to themselves in public places.
In 2000, a documentary titled ‘Long Road to Justice: The Viola Desmond Story’ was released by the ‘National Film Board of Canada.’
‘Cape Breton University’ named a ‘Chair in Social Justice’ and established a scholarship campaign in Viola’s honor.
She was the subject of the children’s book ‘Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged’ by Jody Nyasha Warner and a song written by Canadian social activist and singer Faith Nolan.
In July 2016, a ferry in Halifax harbor was named after her.