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From me to you, highlighting challenges faced by girls

Dear Daughters, Before Rosa Parks There Was Viola Desmond!

Dear Daughters,

Today you are enjoying a day off of school, not due to the fact that our entire city is frozen after the walloping of a Nor’easter yesterday, but because of a new provincial holiday that Nova Scotia calls Heritage Day. Each year, on the third Monday in February, Nova Scotians will recognize significant historical or cultural contributions to our province. This year, on our very first Heritage Day, we celebrate Viola Desmond.

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Viola Desmond (née Davis) was born on July 6, 1914 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Viola Demond was a groundbreaking female entrepreneur. Having noted the absence of professional beauty products for Black women, Desmond opened her own hair salon in Halifax and started the Desmond School of Beauty Culture to provide training for Black women in the industry. At that time, Black women were not allowed to train to become beauticicans in Halifax and Desmond had to travel to Montreal to receive her training. Desmond also started her own line of beauty products called Vi’s Beauty Products.

In 1946, while on a business trip to sell her beauty products, Viola Desmond’s car broke down while driving through New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She had to wait a day for the parts to fix her car to arrive so she decided to pass the time watching a movie at New Glasgow’s Roseland Theatre. Unfortunately for her, this was a segregated theatre where Blacks had to sit in the balcony and whites on the main floor. Desmond refused to sit in the Black-only section and attempted to purchase a ticket to the main floor. The theatre would not sell her one but she sat on the main floor anyway. The main floor tickets were one cent more expensive than the balcony tickets and since she had only paid the balcony ticket price she was forcably removed from the theatre, spent a night in jail and charged with tax evasion. She had a choice to pay a fine or spend 30 days in jail. Desmond paid the fine due to family and work commitments but often regreted not choosing the jail time to bring awareness to discrimination.

Viola Desmond died in 1965 when she was only 50 years old. She never lived to receive the formal apology and pardon from the province of Nova Scotia in April of 2010, recognizing that her conviction for tax evasion was made in error.

Professor Graham Reynolds argues that Ms. Desmond, not U.S. civil rights activist Rosa Parks, should be honoured as the first lady of the civil rights movement. Viola Desmond has often been referred to as the Canadian Rosa Parks, but given that her courageous act against segregation occured nine years before Rosa Parks bravely refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Professor Reynolds argues that Ms. Parks is the American Viola Desmond, not the other way around.

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