Sitting Upright

The familiar story of a less-familiar civil rights icon

Published February 21, 2024

A Black woman refuses to move from her seat, gets arrested for it, and starts a racial justice movement in her country. 

If you think you’ve heard the story before, wait just a second. This woman’s name is Viola Desmond, the country is Canada, and the year is 1946—nine years before Rosa Parks’s incident in Montgomery. Instead of a bus seat, Desmond refused to give up her seat at a movie theater. And in the 78 years since then, like Parks, Desmond has become an inextricable part of the Canadian push toward racial equality.

The limits of success

Born in 1914, Desmond was one of 10 children of a mixed-race couple living in Halifax’s diverse and thriving Black community. As a young adult, Desmond studied cosmetology, founding her own studio as well as a beauty college for Black women, and becoming locally well-known.

But it was Nov. 8, 1946 when Desmond secured her place in Canadian history. While driving through New Glasgow, a small town 100 miles from home, Desmond’s car broke down. Dropping it off at a local garage, she decided she would pass the time watching a movie at the nearby Roseland Theatre.

Upon entering, she was turned away from the floor and directed to the balcony seating. Thinking an error had been made, she returned to the ticket seller, who told her “I’m sorry, but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.”

Defiantly, she returned to a floor seat, prompting a confrontation with the manager who told her to move to the balcony, saying it was “customary” in New Glasgow. She still refused, and the police were called in. Desmond was dragged out of the theater, injuring her hip and knee, and held overnight in a jail cell. In a later interview, Desmond recalled being shocked and frightened that night but, outraged, she sat bolt-upright all night long.

In court the next day, Desmond was charged with attempting to defraud the government for refusing to pay the 1-cent tax on the price difference between the balcony and floor seats. (“I offered to pay the difference,” she later told a judge. “They would not accept it.”) She was not provided with legal representation, nor informed of her right to an attorney. Race was not mentioned during her trial. The judge fined her $26.

Fighting on

Desmond’s husband, Jack, encouraged her to let the issue rest, but others in the community felt that she should continue the fight. The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) offered to raise legal defense funds, and The Clarion, a local Black-owned newspaper, made her story front-page news. 

Desmond eventually chose to continue the fight, hiring (white) lawyer Frank Bissett to represent her. In 1946, the legal nature of racial discrimination had yet to be codified into Canadian law, so Bissett decided to pursue the violation as a civil case, asking for damages from the theater and the manager. The court dismissed it, and another court later refused to vacate her conviction.

Bissett didn’t take any payment for his legal work, allowing the NSAACP to use the funds they had raised to continue to combat racial segregation in the province.

The Desmond Effect

Though Desmond found no legal satisfaction, her resistance helped to mobilize Black Canadians against their second-class citizenship. In 1954, segregation in Nova Scotia legally ended. A Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960 promised “human rights and fundamental freedoms” without discrimination, and by 1982 the Canadian Constitution guaranteed that “every individual is equal before and under the law.”

As for Desmond herself, the stress took its toll and her marriage ended. She moved to Montreal, then to New York City, and she died there in 1965 at age 50 from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage. She was later buried on a family plot in Halifax. 

In 2010, she was granted a posthumous pardon and apology from the Nova Scotia government. In 2021, they refunded Desmond’s fine to her sister–plus $974 more–which she used to set up a college scholarship fund in Viola’s name. And as of 2018, she features on the Canadian $10 bank note, ensuring that her struggles won’t be forgotten any time soon.

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