If you are interested in righting wrongs, the power of the pen will never fail you, octogenarian Wanda Robson – the sister of Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond – told Ryerson University students recently.
It was a letter that Robson penned in late 2009 to New Glasgow Mayor Barrie MacMillan that led to the town unveiling a lasting tribute – a portrait installed in the historic Government House ballroom – to her older sibling. It was also responsible for the Nova Scotia government’s apology and pardon in the legislature in April 2010, 64 years after Desmond was convicted for sitting in a Whites-only section of a movie theatre in 1946.
Robson attributed her passion for writing to her mother.
“She did a lot of writing,” said Robson at the university’s third annual Viola Desmond Day celebration. “She was an educated woman who fought from home with her beautiful penmanship.”
On the advice of the executive council, Nova Scotia’s first Black Lt. Governor Mayann Francis exercised the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, granting a free pardon to Desmond who died alone in 1965 at age 50.
The 14th of 15 children and the author of Sister to Courage: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Robson recalled the events surrounding her sister’s eviction from the Roseland theatre and subsequent arrest.
Desmond owned the only beauty shop in Nova Scotia that sold Black hair products.
“Instead of mailing her orders as she usually did, she decided that she would personally deliver them this time,” said Robson, 84. “Dad inspected her car (she was the only Black woman who owned a vehicle in Halifax at the time) and mother made her lunch before she drove off with her two cushions under her (she was only 4’10” and weighed 97 lbs) for Sydney. While she was nearing New Glasgow, she heard a funny sound in her car and stopped at a garage where the mechanic told her she could not drive it and it would take a day for him to get a replacement part to fix the problem.
“Because she was busy working and did not get the opportunity to attend the movies, she decided to go to the theatre to see The Dark Mirror, starring Olivia de Havilland and Lew Ayres, to pass away the time.”
Unaware of the theatre rules that Blacks were restricted to the balcony seats, Desmond sat downstairs. Refusing requests from the ushers and manager to move, the police were summoned and they escorted her to jail where she spent the night.
The next day, she was charged with tax evasion after prosecutors told the judge that Desmond didn’t pay the full price to sit in front and therefore didn’t pay the proper tax which was a one cent difference. She was fined $20 and $6 in theatre court costs.
With the help of the newly-created Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Desmond appealed the ruling. She lost her first appeal but won a second attempt on a technicality.
A schoolmate of revered Canadian contralto vocalist Portia White, Desmond excelled in school and started teaching before reading a newspaper article about Madame C.J. Walker.
Considered the first female American self-made millionaire, she made her fortune by developing a hugely successful line of beauty and hair products for Black women under her own company.
“When Viola read that article about Madame C.J. Walker, her eyes snapped open, especially after she saw her standing in front of her palatial home with her staff,” said Robson who worked as a lab technician at Atlantic Fisheries Experimental Station in Halifax after leaving high school. “Viola knew right away that there was money to be made in Black hair products and she decided there and then she wanted to have her own store and open franchises across Canada.
“She saved her money and travelled to Montreal to take some hairstyling courses and she started off doing hair in our kitchen. In the early stages, she travelled regularly to New York where she learned every aspect of the business.”
After her trial, Desmond gave up her salon and went to Montreal to pursue business studies.
“I think she just wanted to do something different because she was standing on her feet for years and her hip was bothering her,” said Robson.
Desmond died shortly after relocating to New York to become a business agent for performers.
In 2003 at age 73, Robson entered Cape Breton University (CBU) to pursue her lifelong dream of obtaining a university education.
“I had the time and my husband (Joe), who was a high school teacher then, was contemplating retirement,” said Robson, a Girl Guides of Canada member and Heart & Stroke Foundation, Canadian Cancer Society and Canadian Diabetes Association canvasser for 22 years up until 2000. “While reading the Cape Breton Post one day, I saw that there was this professor (Graham Reynolds) who was giving a course on multiculturalism and the history of racism in Canada. My husband suggested I apply to take the course…During one of the early classes, he showed us a documentary that had my sister in it. I said, there she is.”
Journey for Justice, directed by Roger McTair, is a 47-minute documentary that addresses the struggle for civil rights in Canada and the role of some key players, including Desmond who helped remove discriminatory laws and practices.
Robson graduated on time at age 77 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Last June, CBU created the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Studies and appointed Reynolds – the university’s Chair of the Department of History and Fine Arts – as its first Chair.