Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Viola Desmond, who tried to sit in a “whites-only” section of a movie theater in New Glasgo, Nova Scotia in 1946.
A local business woman with her own line of cosmetics, Desmond was prosecuted for trying to defraud the government of 1 cent. Tickets to movies charged people of color more to sit in the balcony. She offered to pay the tax, but she was convicted and fined 26 Canadian dollars, which included court costs, the New York Times recalled.
Now Desmond’s face will be the first black person and only second woman to appear on Canadian currency. She’ll be on the $10 bill, which will be released this year.
“Outside of the Underground Railroad story, which has a fair amount of mythologizing around it, Canadians do not know about black Canadian history,” said history professor Barrington Walker, of Queen’s University. “Black history was imagined as not central to the founding of the country.”
“Her legal challenge galvanized the black community in Halifax’s north end and paved the way for a broader understanding of human rights across our country,” said financial minister Bill Moreau. He’s responsible for making the final decision on the currency.
Few knew Desmond’s story even in Canada but her sister, Wanda Robson, began talking about it publicly after taking a course on race relations in 2003 at University College of Cape Breton.
Desmond explained that she was unaware of the segregation policy at the time that required black customers sit in the balcony. She asked for a ground-floor seat, which the cashier sold her. She wasn’t informed by the staff at the time of purchase that she had to sit elsewhere, nor was she charged the 1 cent tax at the time of purchase. She was challenged by an usher upon entering the theater but she refused to move. The manager called police and she was arrested. She was 32 years-old.
While she attempted to sue the theater and have her conviction overturned, her efforts were unsuccessful. The state banned segregation in 1954. She was issued a pardon after her death in 2010.
American activists have attempted to put a woman of color on currency with suggestions ranging from Parks to Harriet Tubman.