Remembering Viola Davis Desmond

By Christina Antonick, R+R Adult Facilitator

When I work in the classroom with R+R, we talk about systemic racism, sexism and homophobia. When I ask youth, “Who was Rosa Parks?” there are often a handful of youth who can identify her as one of the mother’s of the civil rights movement in the US. When I ask, “Who was Viola Davis Desmond?” the class looks curiously at me for the answer. So my Blog today is in honour of Ms. Davis-Desmond- as she was an African-Nova Scotian whose story was one of the most publicized incidents of racial discrimination in Nova Scotian and Canadian history.

Viola went to New Glasgow in 1946 and developed car trouble and decided to go to the movies while repairs were being made. She bought a ticket, entered the theatre and took a seat on the main floor, unaware that tickets sold to African-Canadians in this town were for the balcony and the main floor was reserved solely for White patrons. Theatre staff demanded that she go to the balcony, but she refused, since she could see better from the main floor. The police were summoned immediately and she was dragged out, which injured her hip. She was charged and held overnight in jail and was not advised of her rights.

Desmond decided to fight the charges and racist seating policy. In taking the matter to the courts, Viola Desmond’s experience helped to galvanize public opinion locally and internationally, and to raise awareness about the reality of Canadian segregation. I grew up in Pictou County, Nova Scotia and carry a deep appreciation for the courage, dignity, and fortitude Ms. Desmond demonstrated in the face of systemic racism which in many ways, is still present in many Canadian systems today. Part of my job as an educator is to help Canadian youth remember the lives and names of those who worked to shift social attitudes and ideas. There is always so much more for each of us to learn, remember and pass on.

4 Responses to “Remembering Viola Davis Desmond”

  1. fireweedondi on

    Although I spent several years of my youth in Nova Scotia, much of the social justice history of that province was not taught in school. I never knew about Ms Desmond, and I only learned about the underground railroad (something we can we happy about!) many years later as an adult. Many thanks for contributing to the ongoing task of unlearning racism, and to other forms of consciousness raising here!

    • Jack Hallam on

      I I grew up in Toronto and I think it was when i was at University that the great American Contralto came and gave a concert at Massey Hall. (Most readers probably know thAT THE DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION refused her permission to sing in Constitution Hall and Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial). After her concert her hosts took her to Toronto’s “top” club the Granite Club where she was refused entry.I consider myself fortunate that in the 1930s and 40s I lived in a middle middle class neighbourhood and our next door neighbours were a Jamaican family, Clarence, his mother and his Aunt Miss Judah. Jack Hallam S.S.I.


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