Viola Desmond-Davis

Game Changers - Viola Desmond-Davis

When we think of game changers, we think of people that have made a difference through their actions. Changing how a society views culture, art, a real social change. Well, Viola Desmond-Davis is among the most persuasive game changers in Canada. Reluctantly taking on racisim in a time when not only cultural differences had difficulty, also being a woman in the early 1930's, she took on the challenge more by happenstance than seeking to make a change in how her culture was viewed by many.

Although racism was not officially entrenched in Canadian society, Coloured persons in Canada, certainly in Nova Scotia, were aware that an unwritten code constrained their lives. Sometimes the limits were difficult to foresee. In a way, the “unofficial” character of Canadian racism made it more difficult to navigate.

Early on...

Viola Irene Desmond-Davis, was born July 6, 1921 in Halifax Nova Scotia, one of ten siblings. The Davis family was highly regarded amongst the community. Her father James Albert Davis, worked as a stevedore before establishing himself as a barber. Gwendolin Irene Johnson-Davis, Viola's mother, was the daughter of a white minister who had moved to Halifax from New Haven, Connecticut. Racial mixing was not uncommon in Halifax in those days. However, mixed marriage was quite uncommon. Viola's parents were accepted into the community, where they became active and prominent members of various community organizations.

Motivated by her parents work ethic and involvement in the community, she aspired to become an independent business woman. Which, in the early 1930's would not be an easy feat even in a "liberal, socially acceptable early 20th-century Canada". She applied to all of the local beautician schools and was told that she could not attend because she was a black woman. No school would accept her. For Viola Desmond, those rejections signaled an even more urgent need than pursuing her personal goals. The seed was planted, she realized changes needed to be made.

She began a program of study at the Field Beauty Culture School in Montreal, one of the few such institutions in Canada that accepted Coloured applicants at the time. She continued her training in Atlantic City and New York.

Entrepreneur and Community Leader...

In the early part of the 20th century, with the advent of new hairstyles that demanded special products and maintenance with an emphasis on fashion trends and personal grooming, beauty parlours offered opportunities for female entrepreneurs. Coloured women, in particular, were able to discover opportunities not otherwise available. Beauty parlours became a centre of social contact within the Coloured community, allowing shop owners to achieve a position of status.

Viola's perseverance and her involvement within the community, helped her excel quickly. After teaching in two racially segregated schools, she would then open Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in Halifax, catering to the Coloured community.

Becoming a well known entrepreneur, Viola opened a beauty school, the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, to train women and expanded her business across the province. (Desmond created a line of beauty products, which were sold at venues owned by graduates of her beauty school.) Aware of her obligation to her community, she created the school in order to provide training that would provide support the growth of employment for young Coloured women of the time. Enrolment in Desmond’s school grew rapidly, including students from New Brunswick and Quebec. As many as 15 students graduated from the program each year.

Catalyst of change...

The seed that was planted earlier in Viola's life, would sprout from the actions that happened on November 8, 1946, in New Glasgow Nova Scotia.

Viola was on her way to Sydney, for a business meeting. Her car broke down just outside the small community of New Glasgow. She was told that the repairs would take several hours, so she decided to rent a motel room for the evening. She went to the Roseland Theatre to watch a movie, passing the time.

Viola asked for a seat on the main floor, the ticket handler gave her a ticket for a seat in the balcony, which was where the nonwhite people were seated the theatre. She walked into the main floor seating area, where she was challenged by the ticket taker, who told her that her ticket was for an upstairs seat, she would have to move. Thinking that a mistake had taken place, Desmond returned to the cashier and asked her to exchange the ticket for a downstairs one. The cashier refused, saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.” Realizing that the cashier was referring to the colour of her skin, Viola decided to take a seat on the main floor.

Viola was confronted by the manager, Henry Mac Neil. He argued that the theatre had the right to “refuse admission to any objectionable person.” Viola pointed out that she had not been refused admission and had in fact been sold a ticket, which she still held in her hand. She would add that she had attempted to exchange it for a main floor ticket and was willing to pay the difference in cost but had been refused. When she declined to leave her seat, a police officer was called. Viola was dragged out of the theatre, injuring her hip and knee in the process, and taken to jail. There she was met by Elmo Langille, chief of police, and Henry MacNeil, manager of the Roseland Theatre. The pair left together, returning an hour later with a warrant for Viola's arrest. She was then held in a cell overnight. Shocked and frightened, she maintained her composure and, as she related later, "sat bolt upright all night long".

Day in court...

The next morning Viola was brought to court and charged with attempting to defraud the provincial government, basing the charge on her apparent refusal to pay the the one cent "amusement tax" for the ticket on the main floor. Viola had no representation throughout the trial nor was she told that she was entitled to have representation. Magistrate Roderick MacKay was the only legal official in the court, no crown attorney was present.

At no point during the "trial" was race mentioned. The courts decision was to fine Viola, $26. $6 going to the manager of the Roseland Theatre Henry Mac Neil, who was listed as the prosecutor in the case. This charge would stay with Viola for the rest of her life.

Days after...

When asked about the incident by the Toronto Daily Star, Mac Neil maintained that there was no official stipulation that Coloured persons could not sit on the main floor. It was “customary,” he said, for Coloured persons to sit together on the balcony.

We could only imagine how frustrating the situation was for Viola after the courts decision. She would not stand by idly while this injustice lay in her memory.

Others in the community would support Viola; the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) raised money to fight her conviction, and Carrie Best, the founder of The Clarion, the province’s second Coloured-owned and operated newspaper, took a special interest in the case. Best had had a similar experience at the Roseland Theatre five years earlier and had unsuccessfully filed a civil suit against the theatre’s management. The Clarion closely covered Viola’s story — often on the front page.

On the advice of the doctor who examined Viola after the incident at the Roseland Theatre, she contacted a lawyer to reverse the charges brought against her. She decided to attempt legal action.

Further legal action.

Frederick Bissett, Viola’s lawyer, chose not to take on the violation of her rights: neither her basic civil rights, nor her rights to a fair trial with competent legal representation (see also Civil Liberties). Instead, Bissett had the court issue a writ identifying Desmond as the plaintiff in a civil suit that named MacNeil and the Roseland Theatre Co. Ltd as defendants. It sought to establish that MacNeil had acted unlawfully when he forcibly ejected Viola from the theatre, which would entitle her to compensation on the grounds of assault, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment.

The suit never made it to trial, and Bissett later applied to the Supreme Court to have the criminal conviction put aside. The case was considered by Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Maynard Brown Archibald, who, on 20 January 1947, ruled against Viola on the grounds that the decision of the original magistrate should have been appealed to the County Court. As the 10-day deadline for filing an appeal to the original conviction had passed, the conviction stood.

After the Supreme Court decision, legal action on the matter stopped. Bissett did not bill his client, which allowed the NSAACP to use the funds raised for legal fees to continue their fight against segregation in Nova Scotia. Change didn’t happen quickly, and it is difficult to say whether Viola’s experience had a direct effect on the quest for racial equality in the province. Nonetheless, her choice to resist the status quo, and the level of community support she received (e.g., from The Clarion and the NSAACP), reveals a mobilization for change among members of Nova Scotia’s Coloured population who were no longer willing to endure life as second-class citizens. In 1954, segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia thanks in large part to the courageous determination of Viola Desmond and others like her who fought to be treated as equal human beings.

It is difficult to imagine this kind of harsh disregard for another human being these days. Trying to put yourself into the shoes of someone facing this kind of. discrimination while others look on and do nothing, the resistance to change. All the while having the strength to push change forward.

We thank people in our past to shape the Canadian culture we have today. Thank you Viola Desmond!