Nova Scotia

Town pays tribute to Viola Desmond

The town of New Glasgow, N.S., on Monday honoured the memory of Viola Desmond, a black woman who refused to leave the whites-only section of a theatre in 1946.

The town of New Glasgow, N.S., on Monday honoured the memory of Viola Desmond, a black woman who was wrongfully jailed and fined in 1946 for sitting in the whites-only section of a local movie theatre.

Nova Scotia's Premier Darrell Dexter and Justice Minister Ross Landry presented the town with a copy of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy free pardon, a form of clemency that was granted by the province earlier this year.

The pardon is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was made in error.

Landry said the injustice is part of the province's history and its memory must be kept intact so future generations can learn from it.

The free pardon for Desmond, who died in 1965, was signed by Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis — the first black person to serve as the Queen's representative in the province.

Francis was also on hand for the unveiling of a portrait of Desmond, commissioned jointly with the Town of New Glasgow.

'Dragged her out'

Desmond, then a 32-year-old beautician, was driving from Halifax to Sydney on Nov. 8, 1946, when her car broke down in New Glasgow. She decided to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre while she waited for repairs.

Desmond sat downstairs, unaware of the theatre's rule that blacks could sit only in the balcony seats. She was asked to leave but refused. Eventually, the manager and a police officer pulled her out.

"They sort of took one arm and sort of dragged her out," Wanda Robson, Desmond's youngest sister told CBC News before the ceremony in April. "She said, 'I just went limp.'"

Desmond spent the night in jail. The next morning, she was convicted of tax evasion. Prosecutors made no mention of race. They told the judge that Desmond didn't pay the full price to sit up front and therefore didn't pay the proper tax — a difference of one cent.

She was fined $20 and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Desmond decided to fight the case with the help of the newly created Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. She lost the first appeal but won a second attempt on a technicality.

Thanks to Desmond's public court battle, the Nova Scotia government ended up dismantling its segregation laws.