February holiday should be named after Viola Desmond: Caplan

Staff ~ The News webcomments@ngnews.ca
Published on January 6, 2014

NEW GLASGOW - Historian, publisher of Cape Breton Magazine, and Order of Canada member Ronald Caplan has thrown his support behind naming a holiday after Viola Desmond.

Many people know Desmond as an icon for social justice in Canada, a release from Caplan said.

In New Glasgow on Nov. 8, 1946, Desmond, a black woman, refused to give up her seat in the “whites only” section of a movie theatre.

She spent a night in jail, was fined, and set off a chain of events that, 60 years later, led to a formal apology from the Province of Nova Scotia and a Royal Pardon that affirmed that there had been a miscarriage of justice and that Desmond had committed no crime.  

Since then, Viola’s portrait now hangs in Government House, Canada Post has issued a stamp in her honour and the Viola Desmond Chair for Research in Social Justice has been established at Cape Breton University.

Ryerson University celebrates Viola Desmond Day with scholarships and the Town of New Glasgow has permanent teaching displays about her.

Wanda Robson, Viola’s sister and the author of Sister to Courage, has suggested that the day should be called “Viola Desmond Day — in honour of all Nova Scotians who have fought for social justice.”

Robson said that the Viola Desmond holiday would be an opportunity to discuss the continuing story of social justice in Nova Scotia, as well as a chance for young people to learn much more about Desmond herself.

Desmond was also an entrepreneur in the field of black beauty care.

She opened doors for dignity and self-worth for other black women, gave opportunities for other young black women to achieve business success of their own, the release says.

Desmond traveled to Montreal and New York to study hairdressing and skin care, to learn how to make wigs and her own cosmetic products.

She returned to Halifax to operate a beauty parlour serving black women. She also created a line of beauty products and skin creams that met the needs of black women.

She started the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, graduating her first class in 1947.

Desmond pioneered in franchising, as she supplied these new shops with her own beauty products.

In fact, she was enroute to Sydney to deliver her beauty products when her car broke down in New Glasgow. She had to stay the night, an opportunity for an evening at the movies. She happened to sit in the “whites only” section at the Roseland Theatre. This led to her being asked to move and her refusing to give up her seat, being carried out of the theatre, jailed and found guilty of cheating Nova Scotia out of one penny - the difference between a ticket on the first floor and a ticket in the balcony where blacks were required to sit.

She became a Canadian icon for social justice, nine years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgmoery, Alabama bus in 1955.

Grateful as we are for Viola Desmond’s actions in 1946, we would fail her if we did not also remember the day-to-day courage of a woman who was determined to succeed in business, who created and managed a vital enterprise, who trained others in the field of beauty care and broke through racial and gender barriers, Caplan said in his statement.

Caplan suggests contacting the Nova Scotia government to push that the new provincial holiday be called “Viola Desmond Day,” to celebrate her business achievements and courage in both her field and that day in New Glasgow in 1946.