Unlike the United States, where there is at least an admission of the fact that racism exists and has a history, in this country one is faced with a stupefying innocence.
— DIONNE BRAND
Viola Desmond. On November 8th 1946 Ms. Viola Desmond decided to go and see a movie while she was waiting for her car to be repaired. She requested floor seats and paid for the ticket. As she sat watching the movie she was approached and asked to move, but claiming an inability to see from the balcony she refused.
Her refusal would not be accepted and she was subsequently dragged out the theatre by two men who injured her knee in the process. She was arrested and was forced to spend the night incarcerated on the male cell block. Such was her dignity that she sat upright throughout the terrible ordeal.
During her trial she was not told that she could have legal counsel, or cross examine the witnesses testifying against her. The fact that she was unfamiliar with the legal segregation that the cinema utilized and that the sign indicating the seating standards by race was obscured was not taken into consideration. She was subsequently found guilty of tax evasion because though she asked for a floor seat the segregated seating meant that she had actually purchased a ticket for the balcony where Blacks were forced to sit.
By not sitting in the supposedly appropriate place, she had avoided paying exactly one cent in taxes. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and was ordered to pay a total of 26 dollars in fines, with 6 of those dollars to be given to the manager of the theatre who had damaged her knee when he roughly removed her from her seat.
Not content with the verdict, with the support of NSACCP (The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), Ms. Desmond would fight her way to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. Despite the fact that this was clearly a miscarriage of justice based solely in the theatre’s racist policy, the conviction was upheld.
Frederick Bissett, Ms.Desmonds White lawyer, donated his fees back to the NSACCP which then used the funds to fight segregation in Nova Scotia. In 1954, (well before Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat) segregation was struck down in Nova Scotia thanks in large part to the struggle of Ms. Desmond.
At the end of the supreme court battle, Ms.Desmond’s marriage failed because it could not withstand the strain of the trial and publicity it resulted in. She was also forced to give up her dream of owning a chain of beauty salons that catered to Black women. Ms. Desmond moved to Montreal to attend Business school and, upon completion of her degree, to New York to start her business as an agent. Ms. Desmond died at the age of 50, shortly after she arrived in New York City.
Day 64 of Racism Free Ontario’s100 People of Colour Spotlight.
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(via RacismFreeOntario.com: Viola Desmond)