Viola Desmond, Black Canadian Civil-Rights Pioneer
You've likely heard about the new $10 dollar bill featuring entrepreneur Viola Desmond, the black Canadian woman from Nova Scotia who was a Canadian civil-rights pioneer and challenged race-based segregated seating at a cinema in 1949. She will be the first non-royal woman and black person featured on regular Canadian currency. As well, the back of the note has several Canadian symbols of social justice and human rights.
There's more information about Viola's business activities here.
Below, you can see an interview with her sister Wanda Robson.
Find Out More about Viola Desmond
"Many Canadians know that Viola Desmond is the first Black, non-royal woman to be featured on Canadian currency. But fewer know the details of Viola Desmond's life and legacy. In 1946, Desmond was arrested for refusing to give up her seat in a whites-only section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Her singular act of courage was a catalyst in the struggle for racial equality that eventually ended segregation in Nova Scotia. Authors Graham Reynolds and Wanda Robson (Viola's sister) look beyond the theatre incident and provide new insights into her life. They detail not only her act of courage in resisting the practice of racial segregation in Canada, but also her extraordinary achievement as a pioneer African Canadian businesswoman."
"Meet Viola Desmond, community leader and early civil rights trailblazer! On the night of November 8th 1946, Nova Scotia businesswoman Viola Desmond stood up for her right to be in the "unofficial" whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre . . . and was arrested for it. Supported by the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSCAACP) and the black-owned newspaper The Clarion, Viola took her quest for the right to freedom from discrimination to the courts. While she ultimately did not succeed, she was a beacon to other early civil-rights activists. Her sister Wanda worked hard to promote Viola's legacy, which has been finally honoured by Viola's inclusion on the new Canadian $10 bill. This new picture book biography series features simple text and full-colour, comic-flavoured illustration with speech balloons that bring the story alive. Historical photos and timeline support the narrative."
Finalist for the 2011 Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children's Non-Fiction.
"On behalf of the Nova Scotia government, I sincerely apologize to Mrs. Viola Desmond's family and to all African Nova Scotians for the racial discrimination she was subjected to by the justice system . . . We recognize today that the act for which Viola Desmond was arrested, was an act of courage, not an offence." -- Darrell Dexter, Premier of Nova Scotia, April 15, 2010
In Nova Scotia, in 1946, an usher in a movie theatre told Viola Desmond to move from her main floor seat up to the balcony. She refused to budge. Viola knew she was being asked to move because she was black. After all, she was the only black person downstairs. All the other black people were up in the balcony. In no time at all, the police arrived and took Viola to jail. The next day she was charged and fined, but she vowed to continue her struggle against such unfair rules. She refused to accept that being black meant she couldn't sit where she wanted."
"Wanda takes us inside the world she shared with Viola and ten other brothers and sisters. Through touching and often hilarious stories, she traces the roots of courage and ambition, god fun and dignity, of the household that produced Viola Desmond."
"Nine years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, an African Nova Scotian entrepreneur made a similar stand in a New Glasgow movie theatre. This documentary highlights the life of Viola Desmond and places her action and its consequences in the broader context of the struggle for civil rights in Nova Scotia."
Black Canadian History and Identity
"In 1946, a Black Halifax businesswoman, Viola Desmond, was wrongfully arrested for sitting in a white's-only section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. In 2010, sixty-four years later, the Nova Scotia government recognized this gross miscarriage of justice and posthumously granted her a free pardon. Most Canadians are aware of Rosa Parks, the American civil rights icon who refused to give up her seat on a racially segregated bus in Alabama, but Viola Desmond's similar act of courage in resisting the practice of racial segregation occurred nine years before this historic event. However, today, even after the Nova Scotia Government's unprecedented pardon of Desmond, many Canadians are still unaware of her story or that racial segregation existed throughout many parts of Canada during most of the twentieth century. On the subject of race, Canadians seem to exhibit a form of collective amnesia. Viola Desmond's Canada is groundbreaking book aimed at providing both general readers and students of Canadian history with a concise overview of the narrative of the Black experience in Canada. The book traces this narrative from slavery under French and British rule in the eighteenth century to the practice of racial segregation and the fight for racial equality in the twentieth century. Included are personal recollections by Wanda Robson, Viola Desmond's youngest sister, together with important but previously unpublished documents and other primary sources in the history of Blacks in Canada."
"The African Canadian Legal Odyssey explores the history of African Canadians and the law from the era of slavery until the early twenty-first century. This collection demonstrates that the social history of Blacks in Canada has always been inextricably bound to questions of law, and that the role of the law in shaping Black life was often ambiguous and shifted over time.
Comprised of eleven engaging chapters, organized both thematically and chronologically, it includes a substantive introduction that provides a synthesis and overview of this complex history."
"From the first Black person who came to Canada about 400 years ago to the most recent wave of African immigrants, Black Canadians have played an important role in our country's history. In this informative overview, kids will discover the inspiring stories and events of a people who fought oppression as they searched for a place to call their own."
"Across the country and throughout time, Blacks have played pivotal roles in the unfolding of Canadian history. Woven into the fabric of the country itself, they have made serious contributions to this great nation."
"Using an impressive array of primary and secondary materials, Robin Winks details the diverse experiences of Black immigrants to Canada, including Black slaves brought to Nova Scotia and the Canadas by Loyalists at the end of the American Revolution, Black refugees who fled to Nova Scotia following the War of 1812, Jamaican Maroons, and fugitive slaves who fled to British North America. He also looks at Black West Coast businessmen who helped found British Columbia, particularly Victoria, and Black settlement in the prairie provinces. Throughout Winks explores efforts by African-Canadians to establish and maintain meaningful lifestyles in Canada."
"This volume broaches the complicated topic of black identity in a multicultural and diasporic country: Canada. The stories of African Canadians have been interwoven into the history of Canadian society for over 150 years, yet their presence in its dominant narratives remains marginal. Drawing on photographs from the Wedge Collection, Position as Desired reflects on what it means to be African Canadian. It includes depictions of largely unknown or uncelebrated African individuals in Canada as well as works that celebrate the growth and diversity of the African Canadian community."
"The history of Nova Scotia's black communities is a complex story of triumph and struggle, intertwined with the many stories of ancestors, destinies, and challenges."
Books on Africville
There are many books on Africville, the historic Nova Scotian Black community that was destroyed by the government.
"In the 1960s, the city of Halifax razed the black community of Africville under a program of urban renewal and 'slum clearance.' The city defended its actions by citing the deplorable living conditions in Africville, ignoring its own role in the creation of these conditions through years of neglect and the refusal of essential services. In the 1980s, the city created a park on Africville's former site, which has been a place of protest and commemoration for black citizens since its opening."
"When a young girl visits the site of Africville, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the stories she's heard from her family come to mind. She imagines what the community was once like."
You may also be interested in these other blog posts:
- Bob Marley's Redemption Song - the Canadian connection
- In Memoriam: Bromley Armstrong, Black Civil Rights and Trade Union Activist
- "Black Like Me": Celebrating Black History Month with Photography
- Viola Desmond, Activist, Entrepreneur and a Face That You Will be Seeing Around
Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection
And, did you know that Toronto Public Library has the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection?
This collection features over 16,000 print and audiovisual materials for adults, children, and teens about the Black and Caribbean historical and cultural experience – with a special emphasis on Canadian content. Material covers history, social science, and the contributions and achievements of Blacks in Canada. The collection also includes a small selection of titles about world figures in Black history and culture.
Recognized as one of the most significant Black and Caribbean heritage collections in Canada, it is an invaluable resource for the Black and Caribbean community as well as students and researchers.
Formats available include:
- Print: fiction and non-fiction, newspapers and periodicals
- Large Print
- Digitized content
The collection is available at four branches across the city:
Smaller collections identified with a Black and Caribbean Heritage label may also be found at some other branches.