February holiday should be named after Viola Desmond: Caplan

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

Viola Desmond

Many people know Viola 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.

Organizations: Royal Pardon, Government House, Canada Post Viola Desmond Chair for Research Cape Breton University Ryerson University Desmond School of Beauty Culture Roseland Theatre

Geographic location: New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Canada Nova Scotians Montreal New York Halifax Sydney

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Recent comments

  • Michael
    January 07, 2014 - 15:02

    I think this is a great idea, and like it or not good old friendly Pictou County did have some of the similar views the south did back in those days. To name a holiday after a person who stood up for what was wrong in a time where not only blacks, but women as a whole were not viewed as equals sounds like a great way to educate and motivate today's youth and remind us all where we have come from and how far we have yet to go.

  • JOAN
    January 07, 2014 - 08:23

    We are made out to look like that of the south because back in the day that was how it was.I cannot comprehend someone being asked to move because of their colour.It is simply disgraceful and am glad that we are alot better now but there is still predjudice out there

  • Benny Sampson
    January 06, 2014 - 17:49

    They turned that theater into the greasiest bar in town.

  • Suem
    January 06, 2014 - 12:33

    Do we have to be reminded forever that our thumbs were still dragging on the ground in 1946 ?

  • johnny smoke
    January 06, 2014 - 08:45

    Too much just too much. I remember a fellow who grabbed a robber who snatched a purse from an old lady. Do you suppose that we could have a holiday in his name? After all he was performing a public service, but I guess that pales when it comes to playing lets switch chairs in a movie theater .

  • chief wiggam
    January 06, 2014 - 06:18

    no… she didn't pay for that particular ticket. people are making us out to be like it was the south here.

    • NS Forever
      January 06, 2014 - 14:18

      she wouldnt have been allowed to purchase a ticket in the section to begin with because of her appearance, so dont make it seem like she just tried to scam them Honestly the first two comments from this article prove we need this holiday to be named after her, just look how ignorant people still are.