Viola Desmond wasn’t out to make history when she tucked into the Roseland Theatre on Nov. 8, 1946—she was there to kill time.
Stuck in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, while mechanics worked to resuscitate her 1940 Dodge sedan, the 32-year-old business woman requested a single ticket for the 7 p.m. showing of The Dark Mirror.
“One down, please.”
Ignoring the request, the cashier handed Desmond some coins and an “upstairs ticket.”
By way of context, it would not be until nine years later that Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama.
Ignoring the unwritten rules in the segregated movie theatre, Desmond took a seat on the main floor. After refusing orders to relocate, she was dragged to the theatre lobby, dropped into a taxi and taken to jail for the night.
The next day she was charged with violating a provincial act for failing to pay the full amusement tax on her admission—a one-cent mix-up owing entirely to the fact the cashier had refused to sell her a “downstairs” ticket.
“I offered to pay the difference,” she later told a judge. “They would not accept it.” The court fined Desmond $26.
Viola Desmond was already well known in Halifax. She was the busy owner of Desmond School of Beauty Culture. A line of beauty products carried her name.
A businesswoman, teacher, mentor and wife, she wasn’t out to become an activist.
“Do your little bit of good where you are,” she once said. “It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
The Bank of Canada announced its choice for the $10 bill on Dec. 8, 2016. “Viola Desmond’s own story reminds all of us that big change can start with moments of dignity and bravery,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau said at the ceremony. “She represents courage, strength and determination—qualities we should all aspire to every day.”
Below, 10 things you need to know about this remarkable woman.
1. Desmond’s affidavit describes the details of her removal from the cinema: “The policeman grasped my shoulders and the manager grabbed my legs, injuring my knee and hip. They carried me bodily from the theatre, out into the street.” Read more details in Constance Backhouse’s “Racial Segregation in Canadian Legal History,” a 1994 paper that draws on interviews and legal archives.
2. The Halifax businesswoman was the subject of Journey to Justice, a National Film Board of Canada documentary by Roger McTair, (2000). You can watch it here. Her story picks up at the 17-minute mark.
3. ‘All I wanted was to see a movie …’ Desmond is also the subject of a Heritage Minute released by Historica Canada in 2016 to mark Black History Month.
4. Kandyse McClure, who stars in the Heritage Minute, says Desmond was remarkable even before she became a symbol of Nova Scotia’s civil rights movement. “I am honoured to give voice to a woman whose only crime, was the expectation of being treated not as black or as a woman, but as a human being. One who just wanted to see a movie.”
5. In 2010, on behalf of the Nova Scotia government, Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis issued a posthumous “Free Pardon” to Desmond’s family—an official apology and acknowledgement of the miscarriage of justice. “I believe she has to know that she is now free,” Francis said. That same year, the Viola Desmond Chair of Social Justice was created at Cape Breton University.
6. Desmond died in New York on Feb. 7, 1965. She is buried in Camp Hill Cemetery, Halifax.
7. Desmond was chosen for the 10-dollar bill from a short list of five, which included poet E. Pauline Johnson (also known as Tekahionwake), engineer Elsie MacGill, track star Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld, and suffragette Idola Saint-Jean. “I never, ever dreamed of this,” Desmond’s younger sister Wanda Robson—there were 10 kids in their family—said at the Bank of Canada ceremony. “Here she was with these other people, other women … an architect, and a poet, and a writer, and there’s Viola. And I think to myself, ‘What has happened here?'”
8. In February 2012, Canada Post used the backdrop of New Glasgow to unveil a postage stamp featuring Desmond. The stamp features the Roseland Theatre—including the marquee.
9. Craig Smith, who heads the Black Cultural Society for Nova Scotia, told the CBC that Desmond’s story should be part of basic history in Canadian schools: “Here in Canada, we’re really good at—for lack of a better term—whitewashing history, or even just omitting it from the history books altogether so nobody has to learn from it.”
10. The banknote is expected in 2018. On the other side of the newly designed tenspot, the Bank of Canada will feature images and symbols that speak to the struggle for social justice, rights and freedoms.