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Black History Month : Viola Desmond Hairdresser and Cosmetics Mogul

In 1946, Viola Desmond’s stand at a segregated Nova Scotia movie theatre made her into a civil-rights icon for black Canadians. She was at the Roseland Theatre to kill time while a garage repaired her car. The Roseland was a segregated theatre; the floor seats were for whites only, while black patrons were confined to the balcony. Ms. Desmond was shortsighted and needed a better view, and tried to buy a floor seat, but was refused because she was black. She then bought a balcony seat (which was one cent cheaper) but sat in the floor area – until theatre staff called the police and had her dragged out. She spent 12 hours in jail.

Viola Desmond was a cosmetics pioneer for black women in Atlantic Canada. Following in the footsteps of her father, a Halifax barber, Ms. Desmond started out in business at a time when few beauty schools would accept black students. After training in Montreal, Atlantic City and New York, she founded her own institution, Halifax’s Desmond School of Beauty Culture, selling her own line of hair and skin products across Nova Scotia. With the advent of new hair styles that demanded special product and maintenance in the early part of the 20th century beauty parlours offered opportunities for female entrepreneurs. Black women in particular were able to benefit form opportunity not otherwise available. Beauty parlours became a center of social contact within the Black community, allowing the shop owner to achieve a position of status and authority.

Behind Ms. Desmond’s portrait on the $10 bill is a map including the stretch of Gottingen Street, the city’s north end’s main drag, where she opened her salon. To read more about Viola and her stand against the racist actions against her read Sister to Courage written by her sister Wanda Robson.