Viola Desmond Biography

Viola Desmond, a Canadian citizen of mixed race, dedicated her life to advocating for equal rights for people with dark skin in the early 20th century. Despite the absence of segregation laws in Canada, racial divisions were deeply ingrained. Viola, with her black father and white mother, defied societal norms by marrying a black man and sought to provide black women with access to beauty salons and products that were exclusively available to white people. Through her own beauty salon and product line, she became a successful entrepreneur. Viola’s activism gained national attention when she refused to give up her seat in a theater reserved for white patrons, leading to her arrest for tax evasion. However, her courageous act sparked a movement among black people fighting for equal rights.

Quick Facts

  • Canadian Celebrities Born In July Died At Age: 50
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Jack Desmond
    • Father: James Albert Davis
    • Mother: Gwendolin Irene Davis
    • Siblings: Alan Davis, Constance Scott, Emily Clyke, Eugenie Parris, Gordon Davis, Helen Fline, John Davis, Olive Scott, Wanda Robson
  • Born Country: Canada
  • Civil Rights Activists
  • American Women
  • Died on: February 7, 1965
  • City: Halifax, Canada
  • More Facts:
    • Education: Bloomfield High School

Childhood & Early Life

Viola Irene Davis was born on July 6, 1914, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She was the daughter of James Albert Davis and Gwendolin Irene Davis and grew up in a large family with 10 children. Her father was black and worked as a stevedore before opening a barbershop, while her mother was white. Both of her parents were highly regarded and active in the black community in Halifax. Viola initially worked as a teacher in a school for black children but had a desire to address the needs of the black community by introducing beauty products for people with dark skin. However, she faced discrimination as people of African descent were not allowed to join beautician training in her hometown. As a result, she moved to Montréal and later to Atlantic City to receive training as a beautician at the ‘Field Beauty Culture School.’ She eventually completed her training at one of Madam CJ Walker’s beauty schools in New York. Viola had a sister named Wanda Robson, who later wrote a book about their family’s activism titled ‘Sister to Courage,’ which highlighted Viola’s life.

Career

After completing her training, Viola returned to Halifax and opened her own hair salon called ‘Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture,’ which catered specifically to the black community. She also established the ‘Desmond School of Beauty Culture’ to provide beautician training and prevent discrimination against black people in the field. Viola went on to create her own line of beauty products that catered to the needs of the black community. Each year, her school graduated around 15 black women who started their own ventures, providing job opportunities for the black community. She also joined her husband’s barbershop and transformed it into a combined barbershop and hairdressing salon. Viola made several business trips to promote and sell her beauty products. During one of these trips, she faced racial discrimination in a theater in New Glasgow and was charged with tax evasion. This incident led her to close her business and move to Montréal to join a business college.

Awards & Achievements

Viola Desmond is remembered as a courageous citizen who stood up for a cause. In 2012, she was featured on a commemorative stamp released by ‘Canada Post.’ In December 2016, she became the first non-royal Canadian woman to be featured on a Canadian $10 note. That same year, she also became the first colored woman to be featured in a ‘Historica Canada Heritage Minute’ short film. In January 2018, she was named a ‘National Historic Person’ by the Canadian government.

Personal Life

Viola married Jack Desmond, who owned a barbershop in Halifax. Jack had experienced mistreatment by white-skinned people while growing up in Glasgow, but Viola was a strong supporter of the black movement demanding equal rights. In November 1946, she refused to vacate a seat reserved for whites in a movie theater in New Glasgow. She was forcibly removed, arrested for 12 hours, fined $20, and spent a night in a prison cell. She injured her hip during the incident and was not informed about her legal rights or granted bail. Despite her husband’s advice to forget about the incident, Viola gained support from the church and decided to fight her case. She was charged with tax evasion of one cent, the difference in ticket prices for whites and blacks. However, the real reason for her arrest was her refusal to vacate a seat reserved for whites. She approached the ‘Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’ (NSAACP) and hired a lawyer to fight against racial discrimination. Although she lost her case, her determination inspired the black community in Nova Scotia to fight for their rights. Viola’s marriage ended shortly after the incident, and she moved to Montréal before ultimately settling in New York. She passed away at the age of 50 in February 1965 due to gastrointestinal hemorrhage. In 2010, she was posthumously pardoned by the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, and the first ‘Nova Scotia Heritage Day’ in 2015 was dedicated to her. Her portrait is displayed in the ‘Government House’ in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Trivia

Viola Desmond is often compared to Rosa Parks, who played a significant role in the ‘Civil Rights Movement’ in the US by deliberately occupying a bus seat reserved for white people. Although there was no law enforcing segregation based on color in Canada at that time, there was an understanding among both whites and blacks to keep to themselves in public places. Viola’s story was documented in the 2000 film ‘Long Road to Justice: The Viola Desmond Story’ by the ‘National Film Board of Canada.’ ‘Cape Breton University’ established a ‘Chair in Social Justice’ and a scholarship campaign in her honor. She was also the subject of the children’s book ‘Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged’ by Jody Nyasha Warner and a song written by Canadian social activist and singer Faith Nolan. In July 2016, a ferry in Halifax harbor was named after her.

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