Wearing an elegant green dress, a feathered hat, elbow-length white gloves and a neatly coiffed hairdo, Viola Desmond did not look like she belonged in a jail cell, and yet that is where she sat on the evening of November 8, 1946. What was her crime? Tax evasion to the tune of one penny.
Viola Desmond was born in Nova Scotia, one of fifteen children. She married and purchased her own beauty parlour in Halifax. On November 8, she set out for Sydney, Nova Scotia for an appointment, but experienced car trouble during a blizzard and was forced to stop at a garage in New Glasgow. After the auto mechanic told Viola she would have to wait until the following day to have her vehicle repaired, she decided to take in a movie.
Buying a ticket at the Roseland Theatre and finding a seat on the main floor, Viola started to watch the main feature, but was interrupted by the manager who asked her to move to the balcony, the Black section of the theatre. Mrs. Desmond maintained that she had purchased a ticket like the other patrons and refused to budge. The manager would not offer to sell her a ticket for the main floor for 40 cents, 10 cents more than the balcony. Instead, he ran out into the street, grabbed a policeman and the two men dragged the petite beauty parlour owner out of the theatre, leaving her hip and knees bruised.
Viola found herself in the local jail, sitting bolt upright all night in her elegant dress and elbow-length gloves. She faced either a 30-day jail sentence or a $20 fine; she chose to pay the fine, plus $6 in court fees. The judge claimed that the defendant was not charged due to her skin colour, but rather for purchasing a balcony ticket, rather than a main floor ticket (the difference in taxes was one cent). Viola appealed the decision on racist grounds, but her appeal was rejected. A second appeal, however, resulted in a victory for Viola, thanks to a technicality.
Her marriage, unfortunately, did not survive the trial, but her dignity did. The entrepreneur sold her beauty salon, went to business school in Montreal and later moved to New York where she had plans to open another business, but died shortly after. The woman that would later be referred to as "Canada's Rosa Parks" was officially pardoned by the Nova Scotia government on April 15, 2010. The same year, a picture book written by Jody Nyasha Warner, titled Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged, was published.
So, the next time you purchase a movie ticket and choose a seat at the local theatre, think about Viola Desmond on that blustery day back in 1946.
Photo courtesy www.umanitoba.ca.