HALIFAX — A black businesswoman whose contribution to the civil rights struggle in Canada went largely unrecognized for decades has begun to assume her rightful place as a national hero, according to historians.
On Thursday the city of Halifax will officially launch a new harbour ferry named for Viola Desmond, whose simple act of defiance nearly 70 years ago exposed the injustice of racial segregation in her home province and elsewhere in Canada.
It’s the latest in a growing list of tributes for Desmond, who was briefly jailed in November, 1946, for sitting in a whites-only section of a segregated movie theatre in New Glasgow, N.S. A stamp was recently issued in her honour, and Desmond is also among the candidates to become the first woman featured on a Canadian banknote.
Graham Reynolds, a history professor at Cape Breton University, said Desmond’s story has gained more prominence over the past decade — in particular since 2010 when the Nova Scotia government apologized and granted a special pardon to Desmond, who died in 1965.
“There has been a tremendous raising of public awareness,” said Reynolds, the university’s Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice. “More so in Nova Scotia, but she does have national stature.”
Desmond, who sold beauty products, was on a business trip to Sydney, N.S., when her car broke down. She decided to kill time while it was being repaired by attending a movie at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow.
Reynolds said Desmond, who had vision problems and wanted to be closer to the screen, would not have automatically assumed that the main section was whites-only. He said there was no legal underpinnings for segregation in Canada, where segregation became the norm under the principle of freedom of commerce.
“In Canada … the practice of racial segregation was really a matter of local business practices,” he said.
Police were eventually brought in by management and Desmond was forcibly removed after refusing to leave her seat and she subsequently spent the night in jail.
She was eventually convicted of defrauding the province of a penny, which was the difference in price between the main seating area and the balcony. Desmond paid a $20 fine in addition to the theatre’s $6 court costs.
But her fight didn’t end there. Desmond returned to Halifax, where she rallied the black community to help her launch an appeal of her conviction.
However, that effort went down to defeat when the Nova Scotia Supreme Court dismissed an application for judicial review in 1947. Desmond eventually left Nova Scotia and died in New York City at the age of 50.
Desmond is often compared to U.S. civil rights hero Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, nine years later. However, Reynolds points out that Parks had a social movement behind her and was already committed to social change as an activist.
“She (Desmond) wasn’t prepared,” Reynolds said. “She wasn’t an activist, she was a citizen that faced a situation and had the courage to stand up and resist.”
Isaac Saney, a professor at Dalhousie University, said in that respect Desmond’s stance was a “singular act of courage.”
“Whether she was part of a huge movement or stood on her own . . . the position she took deserves to be lauded and deserves to be recognized,” said Saney.
That recognition has gradually materialized with Canada Post issuing a commemorative postage stamp in 2012. There is also a display highlighting her story at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, and a Heritage Minute was launched last February.
Desmond won the most votes among five candidates in an online vote for the new Halifax ferry last winter.
Last month, Viola’s sister, Wanda Desmond, donated a collection of family documents — photographs, letters and other items — to Cape Breton University.
Desmond is on the short list of potential women to be the first featured on a Canadian banknote, due to be issued in 2018.