Imagine being looked down upon, shunned, ignored, and disrespected just plainly for existing. Imagine living under the same skies as anyone else, breathing the same air yet being pushed away because of the way you were born. Racism, prejudice, and injustice. We’ve been battling it for decades now. Viola Desmond was one of the leading advocates for black rights in Canada as I learned by reading Viola Desmond: Her Life and Times.
Viola Irene Desmond, born 1914 in Halifax, was always proud and strong about her own identity. By attending school and doing her best helped her get an education. Viola was always a bright student, often being mistaken for copying the answer key in exams when they were 100% her own. By staying involved in the Halifax black communities such as the church, Viola built herself a respectful reputation and worked towards a career and business as a beautician.
By the mid-1940s Viola had established a very successful beauty culture business serving black women in Halifax. Viola expanded her business by setting up Desmond school of beauty culture in order to train black women as beauticians. her first classified students graduated in 1945. by this time she also had her own line of beauty products and was receiving orders from across the province. in order to serve her customers, she bought a car, a 1940 Dodge sedan. at that time it was almost unimaginable for black women or any women for that matter, to obtain a drivers license, buy a car and take business trips alone.
Viola wasn’t only successful, she had a valourous personality as well. Her sister, Wanda was abandoned by her husband without financial support. Wanda’s family was starving with the water and electricity cut off. When Wanda sought help from the city, she was told to help herself. After Viola found out, she entered the city hall and, after excusing herself for the interruption, she spoke to the mayor and described the situation on behalf of her sister. She told him it was a life and death situation. The mayor thanked her for her concern but indicated nothing could be done until the following Monday. Viola replied, “that’s fine, but you should know, children, die on Saturdays too.”
But the key event that inspired the black community and Canada as a whole to fight against racism was the Roseland Theatre incident. Viola, like any other person, just simply walked into the theatre to watch a movie.
“Miss, you can’t sit here because your ticket is for the upstairs.” The usher said.
Viola asked to pay more and exchange her ticket, but the reply that came was that they were “not allowed to sell downstairs tickets to you people.” Viola fully realized that she was confronting the practice of racial segregation and she refused to give up her seat. But in later hours, the police came, forcefully dragged and threw her out of the Theatre. She was thrown in jail overnight, enduring obscene calls from other observers for being a black woman. Put in court the next day, the judge indicated there was a 10 cent difference in the price of the upper level and lower level tickets and a one cent difference in the amusement tax. She was charged with a violation of the provincial tax law, as she “didn’t pay the one cent” when really her money was refused. This story spread quickly, inspiring the homogeneity within all of the minority groups of Halifax – a fire in their hearts to work towards a world without prejudice.
By reading Viola Desmond: Her Life and Times, you will gain the knowledge of how one can succeed greatly with determination and grit despite the numerous disadvantages they may be born with. It shows the story of a young woman’s brave yet peaceful fight, who advocated for her own and the rights of not only black people but the minority groups of Canada. From trying hard in school to standing up for your own beliefs, being an advocate for yourself and the people in your life, it all makes a difference.
Viola believed that the hearts of minority voices were “Royal Souls who always advocates for the solutions that uphold the dignity and value of all.”. Who’s to say, we can’t be our own hero?
Let our new $10 bill be a gentle reminder for all – Being a Candian means standing up for yourself.