Viola Desmond: Carving Her Own Path
Eqra Jan Ajax High School Ajax, ON
Canada is made up of a variety of races, ethnicities, and cultures. It is made up of weaknesses and strengths, communities, and unrelenting support and kindness, constantly encouraging believers to chase their dreams. But once upon a time, only the privileged race, and the privileged gender, were allowed to dream. It took a special brand of individuals – the heroes of Canadian history – to right the wrongs of society as they could not remain passive when confronted by injustice. Despite the challenges they faced, and the hatred spewed at them solely because of their darker skin or their gender, these heroes prevailed in evolving society. One such bold and defiant woman was Viola Desmond, who created opportunities out of the seemingly unfavorable situations she had to endure instead of waiting for society to carve a path for her.
Despite the limited opportunities for women and people of colour to prosper, Desmond took advantage of whatever resources were available to build a successful life. Early in the 20th century there was a greater emphasis on fashion and Desmond recognized the opportunity to achieve status and economic benefit. She trained in Montreal, Atlantic City, and New York because Halifax did not provide black women with the same resources. This allowed her to open her own parlour – Vi’s Studio of Beauty and Culture – catering to black women, and to launch a line of beauty products. Upon achieving personal success, she fulfilled her obligation to her community. She founded the Desmond School of Beauty and Culture which provided black women with the skills required to open their own businesses, thereby providing other black women in their communities with jobs. While Desmond achieved personal success, the racism, an unwritten code, was still a frequent reminder that Blacks were not considered equals in Nova Scotian society.
Desmond understood the underlying racism, but it did not make it easier to maintain her composure when she experienced it firsthand. While buying a movie ticket, she requested a seat on the main floor, but was given one on the balcony instead. After settling on the main floor, she was asked to move, being told it was the more expensive seat; however, it was clear the colour of her skin was the real issue. Despite offering to pay the difference, she was denied. Dissatisfied with their racist reasoning, Desmond continued to sit on the main floor until she was forcibly dragged out and arrested. The principle of the matter was more important than the indignity she would suffer. Understanding the importance of this moment allowed her to maintain her composure. Thus, Desmond sat upright in the cell all night, her white-gloved hands folded neatly in her lap – this symbol of defiance is still admired today.
Desmond challenged those who dared to demean her as a human because of her skin colour and confronted the segregation that was evident in the false accusations against her. She was charged with tax evasion, provided with no legal counsel, nor made aware of her rights. She was never given a winning chance. This angered her more. After paying a fine of $26, Desmond hired a legal counsel and appealed the charge in court. Aware that the charge was the theatre owner’s attempt at segregation, she wanted her opportunity to confront and expose the injustice.
Her passion against the issue of racism motivated other black people to fight for equality. Her ongoing story was often covered on the front page of The Clarion – a black-owned newspaper, quickly attracting attention from a growing audience. They were restless for her win – their win. The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People fundraised money to overturn her conviction. Viola Desmond motivated a movement and despite her eventual loss, the effects remained. Segregation was now a dominant issue rather than a subtle one. Although her opposition at first appeared inconsequential, the desire for change she set in motion was of great consequence. In 1954, segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia.
Even after her death, Viola Desmond’s story continued to inspire and change Canada. She received a public apology in 2010 essentially giving her the respect her level of defiance, courage, and boldness deserves for driving the movement to end segregation in Nova Scotia. Black communities from all over Canada applaud and appreciate her bravery in confronting an issue that had created a division in society. Ultimately, Desmond’s thirst for justice inspired a vision that became her legacy, inspiring others to continue their struggle to achieve justice.
Bingham, Russell. “Viola Desmond.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/viola-desmond/ Historica Canada. “Viola Desmond.” Black History Canada, TD Bank, www.blackhistorycanada.ca/profiles.php?themeid=20&id=13 CBC News. “How Civil Rights Icon Viola Desmond Helped Change Course of Canadian History.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 8 Dec. 2016,www.cbc.ca/news/canada/viola-desmond-bio-1.3886923