75th Anniversary of Viola Desmond's Challenge of Racial Segregation
In 1946, Viola Desmond challenged racial segregation in Canada simply by sitting down to watch a movie. Seventy-five years later, as the fight against anti-Black racism continues, we remember this strong Black woman not just for what she did but for who she was.
On November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond's car broke down in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. To pass the time as she waited for it to be repaired, she decided to go and see a movie. In Halifax, where she was from, Black people could sit anywhere to watch a movie and so Miss Desmond chose a seat on the main level. She thought it would be easier to see the screen. But the situation was more complicated than that.
In that theatre in 1946, it was understood that the main floor, the "better seats" were for white people only. Black people were forced to sit in the balcony. Viola Desmond could not sit where she wanted.
She was told that she had not paid enough money for her ticket but the theatre staff refused to let her do so. She was asked to leave but she refused to do so. And so the police were called and Viola Desmond was arrested and thrown in jail for the night.
The story does not end with the events of that November 8. The fight against this discrimination had just begun. Viola Desmond, with the help of her community, took the fight all the way to Nova Scotia's Supreme Court. She lost her appeal.
Sixty-three years later, on April 15, 2010, Viola Desmond was granted an official pardon and an apology.
And 75 years after that fateful night in New Glasgow, we acknowledge the significance of this anniversary and its importance in Canadian history.
More About Viola Desmond
Viola Desmond's role in history arguably became more widely known in 2018. That year, she became the first Canadian woman to be featured on regularly circulating currency ($10 bills). And while the events of November 8, 1946 are an important moment in the fight against racial inequality, the woman at the centre of them should be remembered for more than just that one act of defiance.
A true pillar of the African-Canadian community, Miss Desmond made spaces for Black women that did not readily exist. At a time when they were not often welcomed in many white-owned establishments, she opened a hair salon for them in Halifax. She also created and sold her own line of specialty beauty products. After having difficulty finding a school that would welcome her as a youth, Miss Desmond became a mentor to young Black women by opening up her own beauty school, the Desmond School of Beauty and Culture.
Viola Desmond was not only an activist and leading force in Canada's civil rights movement, but also an entrepreneur, business owner and community leader. She had done many great things for the Black community long before she took on this fight for justice. These too should be remembered.
Where to Learn More
Toronto Public Library has many resources that can help parents, caregivers and teachers introduce Viola Desmond to children. These include the French-language version of the English book pictured at the top of this post (Meet Viola Desmond), an alphabet book written by students of William King Elementary School in Nova Scotia, and a picture book biography that recounts the events of November 8, 1946 in story form.
The ABC's of Viola Desmond by the Grade 2/3 students at William King Elementary School (2017)
Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged! by Jody Warner
More information about Viola Desmond can be found in many of our online databases, which are great resources for students researching historical figures. You can access articles in Canada in Context, Britannica Library and Academic OneFile for free with a library card.
Viola's story can also be found in different biography collections, a testament to her impact on history as both a Black Canadian and a Black woman. She is also internationally recognized and featured in the She Persisted book series from Chelsea Clinton.
Yes, she persisted but Viola Desmond is more than just a woman who sat down in a movie theatre. She is a true hero who stood up for justice. And so as we recognize the anniversary of her courageous act and remember all that she did, may we be inspired to follow her example and continue the fight for equality.
- Viola Desmond, Black Canadian Civil-Rights Pioneer
- Viola Desmond, Activist, Entrepreneur and a Face That You Will be Seeing Around