Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Maria. Maria Wonders, “Who is Viola Desmond” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Maria!

Racial segregation and Jim Crow laws existed in the U.S. after the Civil War. You’ve probably read about Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges. They and others took stands against unjust treatment of Blacks. Their bravery helped bring attention to the civil rights movement. Let’s learn together today about a woman in Canada who stood her ground—Viola Desmond.

Canada suffered from racial segregation. There weren’t laws in place. The treatment of Blacks was just understood by everyone. Businesses set their own rules. Society expected Blacks to know the rules and follow them.

Viola Desmond was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia on July 6, 1914. Hard-working parents who were very active in their neighborhood raised Desmond. They were a married biracial couple when people did not like that idea. The black community was accepting of the couple and their 10 children.

Desmond started her working career as a teacher. She wanted to be a businesswoman and left teaching to attend Field Beauty Culture School in Montreal. It was one of the few beauty schools to accept Black students. She finished her training in New York and New Jersey before returning to Halifax. Desmond opened Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in her hometown.

She became popular in Halifax, taking care of the local Black women’s beauty needs. Desmond developed her own line of makeup products for Black women. She also started her own school, Desmond School of Beauty Culture. She taught other Black women and supported them in gaining jobs. Fifteen women earned their diplomas from the school each year.

On November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond was traveling for business. Her car broke down, stranding her in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. While waiting for her car to be fixed, she went to the Roseland movie theater. Desmond asked for a ticket to the lower theater section. She didn’t know that the Roseland was a segregated business. The theater expected Blacks to sit in the balcony seats.

When Desmond went to a seat on the main level, the ticket taker told her she had the wrong ticket. Not understanding, she returned to the box office for another ticket. As the situation became clear that the theater was discriminating because of her skin color, she defied the rules. She sat down in the “whites only” seating. The manager called the police. The police and theater manager picked Desmond up to remove her. They injured her and took her to the police station. She had to stay in the jail overnight.

At her trial the next day, Desmond did not have a lawyer. Nor was she informed that she could have a lawyer. They charged her with defrauding the government. The court said she didn’t pay an amusement tax. The tax was only the cent difference between a ticket for the balcony and lower seats. Desmond argued she had offered to pay the extra cost. The trial ended with Desmond being charged a $26 fee.

Desmond sued the Roseland and its manager because of her injuries. They did not send the case to trial. In another try at justice, Desmond’s lawyer appealed to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court to have her criminal charges dismissed. This also failed.

Desmond never made charges of racism. Her case brought attention to racial segregation. The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People raised money for Desmond. Black-owned newspaper The Clarion covered Desmond’s story.

Many people today credit Desmond’s actions as the beginning of the end of segregation in Nova Scotia. The practice legally ended in 1954. Desmond went through a divorce and moved to the U.S. after all her trouble. She died in New York on February 7, 1965.

After her death, Canada honored Desmond with her portrait on the ten-dollar bill. Nova Scotia’s government pardoned her. A 2012 postage stamp featured her face.

Have you read about others whose small actions made big changes? Would you like to one day stand up for something you feel strongly about? 

Standards: CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.4, CCRA.L.5, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.3, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.W.3, NCAS.PR.6, CCRA.R.5

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