Viola Desmond: Her Life and Times

Viola Desmond: Her Life and Times by Graham Reynolds and Wanda Robson chronicles and life and legacy of the woman who is now featured on the Canadian ten dollar bill. In 1946 Desmond was removed from the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, for refusing to move from the whites-only seating section. Blacks at that time were relegated to the balcony. Desmond however believed she had paid for a seat on the lower level. She returned to the box office to clarify what kind of ticket she had purchased, at which point it became clear to her that she was not welcome on the lower level. The theatre would not sell her such a ticket, even if she was willing to pay for it. Desmond realized that this was racial discrimination in action and returned to her seat at the lower level. The police were called and when an officer arrived he and the theatre manager each grabbed one of Desmond’s arms, lifted her up and dragged her out of the theatre. Desmond spent that night in jail.

At her trial, for which Desmond was never offered counsel [1] she was not charged with sitting in the whites-only section or even with resisting arrest. At this time in Canadian history, racism may well have existed but it was kept off the books. Establishments like the Roseland Theatre could set their own rules if they wanted to be integrated or segregated. Thus with no violation of a provincial segregation law to charge her with, Desmond was instead charged with the incredulous crime of failing to pay the one-cent entertainment tax on the whites-only ticket she had bought.

Desmond eventually lost her appeal to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Desmond did not transform herself into an activist after this incident. Far from wanting to be the centre of attention, even when faced with such injustice personally, Desmond let the matter slip quietly into history as she resumed her successful career. At the time of the Roseland Theatre incident Desmond was already a familiar name as a beauty expert with a specialty in black aesthetics. She had her own salon and beauty school and was an entrepreneur with her own line of skin and hair care products. In the mid-forties if you were a professional black woman, you were probably working as a domestic. Desmond was a pioneer in transforming herself into a pillar of her community, where women flocked to her salon and later to her beauty classes. Desmond had empirical aspirations: she wanted women to take the Desmond techniques with them and spread her legacy. One cannot know the intimate thoughts in Desmond’s mind but perhaps it is this legacy she wanted to foster–one that she was already in the process of building–as opposed to taking on the reluctant mantle of activist. 

This short biography was cowritten with Desmond’s younger sister, Wanda Robson, who provided family anecdotes through countless interviews with Graham Reynolds. It was most sad to read about Desmond’s life and suddenly be met with the tragic line “…she died suddenly in her Harlem apartment in 1965 of an intestinal bleed.” Fifty-four years after her death, and 73 years after the humiliating way she was treated in the movie theatre, the name Viola Desmond is now known from coast to coast. She has been honoured for her bravery in standing up against racism.

[1] Throughout this book the authors mistakenly use the homophone, council, for this context. 

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