Black History Month

Viola Desmond was a Nova Scotia Business woman who, in 1946, was involved in an incident that would aid the change of segregation laws in Nova Scotia. On November 8th 1946, Desmond was driving through New Glasgow, Nova Scotia when her car broke down. While her car was being repaired, Desmond decided she would go to see a movie at a near-by theatre.

She purchased a ticket for the film and took a seat on the ground floor. After noticing her, officials asked Desmond to move, stating African Canadians had to sit in balcony seats. There had been no signage mentioning this rule and no earlier warning. After refusing to leave her seat, the manager of the theatre – with the help of a police officer – carried Desmond out into the street, injuring her hip in the process. Desmond was held in jail overnight. Taken to court the next day, Desmond was charged with tax evasion. The crime she had committed was sitting in the main section while paying for a balcony ticket. However, the theatre had refused to sell her a more expensive ticket. Desmond was ordered to pay the ticket difference of 1 cent. She was additionally fined $20 and an extra $6 for the theatre’s legal expenses. Desmond paid the fine but challenged the decision in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. She had not been read her rights nor told that she was allowed to hire a lawyer or question witnesses during the trial. Despite errors made by officials, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court upheld Desmond’s conviction. The case was later taken up by the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP). When the appeal failed, Frederick Bissett, the white Halifax lawyer who had taken on the case, gave his fees back to the organization so it could continue to fight against state sanctioned segregation. Publicity and pressure brought on by the organization and supporters led to the province repealing its segregation laws, but not until 1954.

April 15, 2010, Premier Darrell Paxter apologized to Mrs. Desmond’s family and to all African-Nova Scotians for the racial discrimination she had been subjected to by the justice system. Shortly after the incident occurred (in 1946), Mrs. Desmond closed her beauty parlour business in Halifax and moved to New York where she died in 1965 at the age of 50.

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