The pioneering Canadian civil rights icon refused segregation, demanded justice, and created an empire. 

Viola Desmond started a civil rights movement with the simple act of buying a movie ticket. 

However, her activism has deep roots. Desmond grew up in a large family with nine brothers and sisters in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Because Desmond’s mother was white and her father was Black, they had to be careful about where they raised their family. Canadian laws in the 1920s and 1930s limited where people of color could live, so the Desmond family settled in a Black neighborhood.

Desmond’s parents were well-respected members of the community and were involved in various local organizations. Their hard work and civic focus inspired Desmond to start her own business.

Beauty salons in Halifax catered exclusively to white women’s skin and hair. Desmond knew that this was more than an oversight––the lack of interest in learning to properly care for and style Black peoples’ hair and skin was a result of systemic racism. But Desmond saw more than discrimination; she saw an opportunity. 

When the local Halifax beautician schools wouldn’t accept her because she was biracial, Desmond attended schools in Montreal and Atlantic City. She even studied directly with Madame CJ Walker, America’s first Black self-made female millionaire in New York City. 

After Desmond completed her extensive training, she returned to Halifax to open her own salon. Desmond was charismatic, kind, and attentive, and her beauty parlor became the social hub of the community. Women looked forward to their appointments all week, and men would socialize at the accompanying barbershop where Desmond’s husband worked as a barber. She became regarded as a successful role model for other young, Black women in Halifax.

Soon, Desmond opened her own beautician school so other Black women could learn the trade without having to leave Halifax. She even developed her own line of skincare and hair products including lipstick, facial powder, hair pomade, perfume, styling waxes, oils, and hair dye. Desmond’s products, salons, and training became so popular that she franchised her business all across the Maritimes.

With her signature flawless hair and impeccable makeup, Desmond projected pride and confidence everywhere she went. At a time when few women drove, she owned her own car, and drove up and down the Maritimes to train proteges, manage her franchises, and hand-deliver beauty products.

Driving alone with the wind on her face, Desmond could feel her success and freedom in her fingertips. She was her own boss, she was serving her community, and she had become the entrepreneur she had always wanted to be. 

Desmond’s car broke down on one of her trips to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, and the local mechanic said it would take a day to repair. Unphased, Desmond decided to catch a movie at the local theater before getting a hotel room for the night.

On a chilly Friday evening, the Roseland Theater glowed invitingly. Desmond slipped a white-gloved hand into her purse, paid for her ticket, and took a seat in the downstairs level of the darkened theater. After a few minutes, an usher came and informed Desmond she was sitting in the wrong section of the theater and asked her to move upstairs into the balcony seating. Believing there had been a mistake, Desmond returned to the ticket counter to purchase the appropriate ticket. 

The ticket attendant refused to sell her a downstairs ticket, explaining that “I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.” Desmond realized what was really happening. The theater was practicing unofficial segregation; Black people upstairs, white people downstairs. Face-to-face with blatant racism, Desmond made an instant decision.

She closed her purse and quietly returned to her original seat without making a fuss. If she was going to stand up to racism, she was going to do it the same way she lived the rest of her life, with poise and grace.

After a few minutes, the movie was interrupted by the theater manager demanding that Desmond move to the balcony section where she belonged. Desmond politely explained that she had already attempted to purchase a ticket but the attendant had refused to sell her one. Frustrated, the theater manager left and called the police. 

A few minutes later, the theater doors swung open as the manager returned with a police officer, and the two white men forcibly dragged Desmond from her seat. They left bruises on her, and she lost both her shoe and handbag during her arrest. Desmond was taken to jail and placed in a holding cell overnight. She was never informed of her legal rights and was not told that she could apply for bail, hire counsel, or adjourn her trial until she was represented by a lawyer. 

Desmond sat silent and straight-backed through the night, her white-gloved hands folded in her lap.

The next morning, she was escorted to the courtroom where her private prosecution began. There was nobody in the courtroom but Desmond, the theater manager, and the presiding judge. 

Because the theater had sold Desmond a 30 cent upstairs ticket instead of a 40 cent downstairs ticket and Desmond had remained in her downstairs seat, the theater manager claimed she was defrauding the government of the one-cent entertainment tax difference between the two tickets. Serving as her own lawyer, Desmond defended herself with dignity. Despite being well spoken and logical in her defense, the magistrate found her guilty of tax evasion and fined her 20 dollars plus an additional 6 dollars to cover the theater manager’s legal fees.

After the trial, Desmond picked up her repaired car and drove back to Halifax where she told her family and friends what had happened to her in New Glasgow. It was 1946, nine years before Rosa Parks protested segregation in Alabama, and Desmond was in uncharted territory. Her husband urged her to let it go.

But she couldn’t.

As the news spread about Desmond’s wrongful imprisonment, the entire community got behind her. Friends connected her with a new publication called The Clarion that put her story on their cover. Church leaders advised Desmond to get proper legal counsel and with the help of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), Desmond hired a well-known lawyer to take her case. 

Segregation had not been mentioned during Desmond’s original trial, although it was obvious that the fraudulent charge was fueled by racism.

But because of her original wrongful conviction and the systemic racism within the court system, Desmond’s appeal was denied. She appealed again at the Supreme Court of Canada. Although two of the presiding judges acknowledged that the case was truly about racism and not tax evasion, they ultimately upheld the original conviction, thereby upholding segregation within Canada.

When the decision came down, Desmond felt humiliated. She had hoped for justice, and her country had failed her. The limelight of the trial had also overshadowed her former life and business empire, and Desmond decided she was done with Nova Scotia for good. She gave up her business and the community she loved, relocating to Montreal and then New York City, where she lived until her death in 1965.

Desmond’s story seemed to end there, but in 2010 Desmond’s younger sister, Wanda, wrote the New Glasgow government asking for an official apology for the ill-treatment and wrongful prosecution of her sister. To Wanda’s surprise, the government responded by offering her sister a free pardon and officially acknowledging Desmond for what she had always been, a brave and powerful woman standing up to the hatred and injustice of a broken social system, the epitome of a civil rights leader.   

During the official pardoning ceremony, the Premier of Nova Scotia delivered a heartfelt message to the crowd:

“This is a historic day for the province of Nova Scotia and a chance for us to finally right the wrong done to Mrs. Desmond and her family. This is also an opportunity for us to acknowledge the incredibly brave actions of a woman who took a stand against racism and segregation.” 

Canada further honored Viola Desmond by placing her portrait on the 10 dollar note where she will continue to serve her community by inspiring generations of future rebel girls to be brave, beautiful, and strong.

Grace Boyle is a writer for Rebel Girls, where she focuses on interviewing contemporary feminist artists and researching historical feminist leaders. Previously, she led the writing and content team at MentorBox as executive writer and editor, where she created educational content for world-class experts and thought leaders including New York Times bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners. Grace studied writing at the Ezra Pound Center for Literature and learned to interview at the Nationally Acclaimed Public Radio show New Dimensions Radio. She regularly consults with podcasts and businesses on brand narrative and communication strategy. Grace lives by the ocean in San Francisco and begins each day with a cup of tea and a text to her mom. You can find Grace on LinkedIn.