Nova Scotia

Viola Desmond's sister recounts family's Halifax Explosion experiences

Desmond was sitting in her high chair in front of the window when the glass fell in. 'Oh dear Lord, the child is dead,' Desmond's father reportedly said after the blast.

'Oh dear Lord, the child is dead,' Desmond's father reportedly said after blast

The aftermath of the 1917 Halifax ship explosion is shown in a file photo. The disaster levelled much of the city 100 years ago and killed about 2,000 people. (Canadian Press/National Archives of Canada)

When Wanda Robson was growing up, every now and then when her family got together, conversation would turn to the devastation of the Halifax Explosion.

Robson is the youngest sister of civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond. Desmond, a businesswoman and beautician, was jailed in 1946 for sitting in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow, N.S., movie theatre. The theatre's policy forced black people to sit upstairs in a balcony. Her case helped end racial segregation in Nova Scotia. Desmond died in 1965 at age 50.

A portrait of Viola Desmond, circa 1940. Communications Nova Scotia (Communications Nova Scotia/Bank of Canada/Flickr)

Desmond and her sisters Emily Clyke and Helen Flint survived the explosion. Clyke, a retired psychiatric social worker who is now 104, and another sister, Eugenie Parris, 93, now live in Montreal.

About 2,000 people were killed and another 9,000 injured in the Halifax Explosion when Norwegian steamship Imo, which carried Belgian relief supplies, collided with the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc on Dec. 6, 1917.

Blast felt in Truro

"Emily, who was four, she remembers being in the kitchen. They had a little children's table in the corner of the kitchen for Emily.… And she was sitting at that table having her breakfast," said Robson, 90, in a recent interview.

Wanda Robson is the youngest sister of Nova Scotia civil rights icon Viola Desmond. (Robert Short/CBC)

Viola, then three, was sitting in a high chair set back against the window. Their father, James Albert Davis, was taking care of them in their north-end Halifax home. Moments before the explosion, he had left the kitchen to use the bathroom.

Their mother, Gwendolyn Irene (Johnson) Davis, was not home. With her oldest and youngest sons in tow, she was on a train heading to New Haven, Conn., for a family funeral.

"And when she got as far as Truro, the train stopped," Robson was told.

Viola Desmond, right, who became a civil rights icon for her actions in the late 1940s, has been championed over the decades by her sister, Wanda Robson, left. (Wanda Robson)

As parts of Truro shook because of the massive explosion, Gwendolyn found out it happened in Halifax's north end.

She was worried about her family, so she wrapped a huge furry robe around her boys and hired a horse and buggy to take her back to Halifax.

Window blind struck Viola's head

The family rented an upstairs flat at 114 Gottingen St.

Robson's oldest sister Helen was walking in the downstairs hallway with her friend, the landlord's daughter. The force of the blast knocked them off their feet and they dropped to the floor, Robson was told. Helen was not injured.

Emily Clyke, Viola Desmond's sister, was in the kitchen with Desmond when the explosion blew the window in. (Submitted by Graeme Clyke)

When James went into the kitchen, he found Emily on the floor picking herself up. Viola was still seated in her high chair.

"The blind had fallen in on Viola and the window, the glass had fallen in and my father saw no movement," Robson was told. 

"And he said, 'Oh dear Lord, the child is dead. What am I going to tell her mother? What am I going to tell Gwen — that I'm caring for our daughters and one of them died while she wasn't here?'

"He said she was sitting there with her fists clenched and her eyes closed and he said, 'Viola, are you alright?'"

According to Robson, James picked up the blind and Viola looked at him and said, "Papa, those bad boys throw stones at me," and he laughed.

Viola only suffered one small scratch.

Viola Desmond’s parents, Gwendolyn Davis and James Davis. (Courtesy of Wanda Robson)

A few windows of the home where the Davises lived on Gottingen Street were blown out. A lower flat was later used as a comfort station after the explosion.

After the blast, James got all three girls ready and headed up to Gerrish Street to find his mother. Robson remembers Emily telling her that she saw bodies rolled up in the gutter.

"The bank had exploded, there was money floating in the air … people wandering around … not knowing who they were," Robson said.

Grandmother thrown into kitchen cupboard

When James and the girls arrived at Gerrish Street, they found his mother's door hanging askew. When he went in, he found his brother William knocked out on the kitchen floor. He had a few cuts, but he recovered.

The force of the blast blew James's 90-pound mother into the open cabinets where she kept dishes.

"Dishes had all fallen down. She was up sitting on one of the shelves," Robson was told.

His mother had a jagged piece of glass sticking out of her forehead.

James carried her down from the shelf and sat her on a chair. When he went to the door, there were Red Cross wagons going up and down the street to help people who did not have life-threatening injuries. The Red Cross gave James's mother some stitches and medication on the spot, telling her the hospitals were already full.

Bodies in the street

Upon her arrival in Halifax, Gwendolyn passed many dead bodies on the street. When she got home and saw that her family was safe, she got down on her knees and thanked God.

"Both my father and my mother said that they were so thankful to be alive and particularly [for] their children not being in school," Robson said. "There were so many children who were dead. And she said, 'There were mine — alive.'"

Listen to Wanda Robson share her family's story below:

Wanda Robson, who is Viola Desmond's youngest sister, recalls the many accounts she's heard over her 90 years from her older siblings. They were a young family at the time of the Halifax Explosion. Their story of survival is captivating. 4:55

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email sherri.borden.colley@cbc.ca