Viola (Davis) Desmond was a Halifax Business Woman, Beautician, Teacher and Entrepreneur who Awakened Nova Scotia to Human Rights in 1946.
The Davis family played an active part of Halifax Black society and, being born into in that family in 1914, Viola saw something that Black women wanted and needed in Nova Scotia. She observed the lack of professional Hair and skin care for Blacks. That was an entrepreneurial opportunity gap that she determined to fill. To do this, she ventured to New York’s Lalia College which had grown out of Madam C.J. Walker’s beauty business. Viola understood Walker’s business model – Don’t just build a business, build an industry. Today we would recognize that as “vertical integration”.
Viola (Davis) Desmond plotted her personal path to success by
Gaining professional training that was not available at home
Developing her own line of specialized beauty products
Using her products in her own studio
Empowering other Black women to start beauty culture businesses
Selling her product through the businesses started by her students
By 1946 she was proving the value of her formula and business was good. The Desmond Studio of Beauty Culture and the Desmond School of Beauty Culture were going strong and her network was expanding as she built an industry with her graduates. She created a province-wide Black Beauty Culture industry.
Viola Desmond was a leader in many ways:
She was a living positive successful Role Model for Black Women
Her graduates learned to operate a business
Young girls proudly admired her stylish sense of presence
At a time when few women owned and operated independent business, she was admired as being truly outstanding.
Her eager graduates began their own careers and joined the distribution network for the Viola Desmond’s brand of beauty products.
So it was on November 8, 1946 that she was on the road delivering product to out of town studios. Car trouble forced her to have idle time in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia so she took in a movie. The Roseland Theater that she entered had a racist practice restricting Blacks to sit in the balcony. Viola sat downstairs and when asked to move refused to go to the balcony.
For that refusal, she was ejected from the theater, arrested by the New Glasgow police, locked overnight in the New Glasgow jail, charged, found guilty and sentenced in the New Glasgow court. She was found guilty of defrauding the government of the 1 cent difference in the 3 cent tax in a downstairs ticket and the 2 cent tax in a balcony ticket. She paid the fine plus costs and left New Glasgow.
When she returned to Halifax, the newly formed Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People encouraged her to fight to overturn that malicious conviction. Unfortunately, the appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was unsuccessful. The 1946 conviction remained on her record.
Viola Desmond had been denied the protection that one expects from the police, the prosecutors, the judges and the courts. Eventually, she left her business, left Nova Scotia and left Canada. Her 1965 death occurred in New York City.
In 2010, sixty-four years after the fact, the government of Nova Scotia apologized to the Viola Desmond’s remaining family and acknowledged the integrity, strength and bravery of her action defending human rights. In 2012, Canada Post issued a Canadian postage stamp commemorating her stand for justice.
For decades, Viola Desmond’s ordeal inspired the emergence of Human rights legislation and fair accommodation laws throughout Canada during the 1950s and 1960s. The loss of Viola as a dynamic business role model has denied generations of Black entrepreneurs of her inspiration in that field. Today Black Business entrepreneurs still feel frustration and resistance.
Canada celebrates her strength of character in defying social injustice in 1946 Nova Scotia. As Dr. Martin Luther King Junior wrote in 1963, “… injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. For that, Viola (Davis) Desmond remains a role model and source of pride for African-Canadians. Leslie Oliver and Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia