Black History Month: The legacy of Violet King, Canada's first Black female lawyer

How Violet King broke a series of barriers as Canada's first Black female lawyer.

CBC Calgary is highlighting the legacies of 3 Black Calgarians who shaped our city


1 year ago
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How Violet King broke a series of barriers as Canada's first Black female lawyer.

February is Black History Month, and we recognize it by celebrating the contributions that Black Canadians have made to Canada's history and culture. 

CBC Calgary is highlighting the legacies of three Black Calgarians who broke barriers, changed the city's history and influenced its present.

This story was originally published on Feb. 24, 2021.

To understand the impact of Violet King's legal career is to recognize a series of broken barriers.

In 1953, she became the first Black graduate of the University of Alberta's faculty of law.

She was the first Black woman to practise law in Canada after being called to the bar in 1954.

And she would become the first Black lawyer admitted to the Law Society of Alberta.

"She is just a trailblazer in terms of being a Black Canadian, and having her achievements reach such high levels, during a time that was historically quite discriminatory and racist toward people of African descent," said Nicole Dodd.

Alongside Cindé Adgebesan and Pam Tzeng, Dodd is a founder of the AB Anti-Racism EDU Committee that campaigns for Black Canadian history and anti-racism coursework to be included in Alberta's K-12 curriculum.

"Today there are Black student law associations, there are all types of associations specifically for different Black professionals in their fields. And I feel like somebody like Violet King was a trailblazer to allow for those types of organizations to exist today.

"So, her impact in Alberta and in Canada was truly immeasurable."

Her character

Born in Calgary in 1929, King lived in the northwest community of Sunnyside and went to Crescent Heights High School, where she excelled, Dodd said.

King would attend the University of Alberta in 1948. Six years later, she would become Canada's first Black female lawyer.

And to accomplish what she did, Dodd said, King was likely confronted with both racism and sexism in a field that was overwhelmingly represented by white men.

"I think it says a lot about her character, it says a lot about her ability to look past, probably, comments and behaviours that were discriminatory," Dodd said.

"It speaks to her ability to just continue moving forward with the belief that this is what she was supposed to be doing, and nothing can stop her. Not racism, not discrimination and not barriers against women.

"And I believe that that is truly what powered her through her law career."

Strong and resilient and tenacious

King defied stereotypes that would undermine Black women's achievement and success, Dodd said.

And as a Black woman who also attended the University of Alberta while completing a bachelor of commerce, Dodd said she would ask King about her experience if she could.

"I remember my own experience at U of A, feeling relatively isolated and not really feeling like I saw a lot of people that looked like me in leadership positions," Dodd said.

Violet King, at right, stands beside her family as her brother Ted arrives back in Calgary in 1946. (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

"I can't even imagine how it would have felt in 1948, walking through those halls.… I just would be interested in knowing: Where does she get her resolve? Her resolve to keep going, her resolve to make a difference, her resolve to do something, that she literally had never met anybody else who looked like her who was doing that same thing. 

"That is truly incredible, and something within her must have been very strong and resilient and tenacious to keep going."

And, indeed, King would openly acknowledge the struggle for people of colour in the workforce. 

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, King delivered a speech in 1955 at a Beta Sigma Phi sorority banquet in Calgary.

"It is too bad that a Japanese, Chinese or coloured girl has to outshine others to secure a position," she said.

Standing on their shoulders

King practised criminal law in Calgary before she moved to Ottawa, where she worked for the federal department of citizenship and immigration for seven years.

Eventually, King made her way to New Jersey, where she became the executive director of the Newark YMCA's community branch. She also got married and started a family — becoming the Violet King Henry known today that has an Alberta building named after her.

(Glenbow Archives)

In 1976, she became the first woman to have an executive position with the National Council of the YMCA's Organizational Development Group.

King Henry died in 1982. She was 52.

She was inducted into the National YMCA Hall of Fame in 1998.

"As somebody who later pursued higher education beyond my undergraduate degree, I think knowing about Violet would have helped me to feel as though my accomplishments are not novel," Dodd said.

"That there are people who have accomplished great things in Canada who look exactly like me, and, in fact, I am standing on their shoulders."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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With files from Monty Kruger and The Canadian Press