Remembering Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond, a Canadian civil-rights hero, was honored today with the announcement that her face would appear on the $10 bill. She beat Rosa Parks to the punch by nine years, in 1946, when she insisted on sitting in the “white” area of a Nova Scotia movie theatre (i.e. the better, pricier seats down on the main floor, instead of the balcony, where black moviegoers were supposed to sit). The difference in ticket prices? A whopping one cent. She got dragged out by violent police officers, and tried, and fined for “defrauding the government”. She paid her $20 fine promptly, thus proving that the whole nasty episode wasn’t about the difference in ticket prices at all. You’d have to be blind not to see the racism there, eh? Viola certainly could, and that’s why she fought back. Her court challenge resulted in the dismantling of racial-segregation laws all over Canada.

But even before she challenged the segregation of movie theatres, Viola was already a fighter against racism. As the report shows, she had to cross the color line in order to be able to open her own beauty salon; most hairdressing schools at the time barred all black trainees. Viola saw an unfilled niche in the field, and became a teacher of other black beauticians, and eventually the owner of a hairdressing school, as well as a cosmetics manufacturer specializing in products for black clients. So it hardly comes as a surprise that she had the spirit to fight for her rights rather than just quietly let racial segregation pass unchallenged. After all, Canada had just fought and won a war against fascism overseas. Why let it go on happening at home?

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