This past February found me traveling, by bus, from Halifax to Sydney, Cape Breton Island. During the stop in New Glasgow, I thought about Viola Desmond (1914-1965), the African Nova Scotian beautician whose 1946 arrest in the town — for defying segregation at the Roseland Theatre — has been widely documented and whose likeness graces the front of a $10 bank note.
However, it was during the nearly five-hour ride after New Glasgow that I reflected, seriously, on Desmond’s grit and determination as a trail-blazing entrepreneur.
In addition to founding, in the 1940s, the first school in the nation to train Black women in cosmetology, she had also developed her own line of beauty products. Indeed, she was en route to Sydney to deliver customer orders when her green Dodge broke down and thus propelled her into Canadian history.
“At that time, it was almost unimaginable for a Black woman, or any woman for that matter, to obtain a driver’s license, buy a car and take business trips alone on the back roads of Nova Scotia,” noted Wanda Robson, about her sister, in Viola Desmond: Her Life and Times, the 2018 book she co-authored with Graham Reynolds, professor emeritus at Cape Breton University.
“Many of the roads [Viola] travelled were not paved and there was no causeway connecting the mainland to Cape Breton,” Robson continued. “[Crossing] the province could take several days. This, in my view, is testimony to Viola’s independence and self-confidence.”
To be sure, as the bus made its way through the snowy landscape, I shuddered to imagine the bleak conditions that Desmond might have encountered when she left Halifax — on a cold, wet morning — in November 1946. I’m sure I would have wimped out and mailed the products.
On that note, I hope that singer Rihanna whose smash hits include “Work” and who also launched the Fenty Beauty line of cosmetics (reported $100 million annual sales) has been hipped to Desmond.
As for Robson, who died last year at age 95, she became a stalwart champion of her sister’s stand against racism. Moreover, speaking with the honesty and humility that marked her life, Robson told me, during a 2011 interview, that she was initially shamed by Viola’s stint in jail. “I was embarrassed” she said.
In Viola Desmond, she wrote that she feared the dispute might jeopardize her job as a lab technician at the Atlantic Fisheries Experimental Station where she, then in her late teens, was the only Black staffer at the Halifax agency.
“It was the custom among respectable middle-class Blacks that, in matters of race, it was best to remain silent,” Robson explained. “I tried to keep the incident out of my mind, but that was difficult because [Viola] was in the news quite a bit. One of my co-workers … one day asked, ‘Is [she] your sister?’ I said she was and they then turned away with no further comment.”
Robson continued: “I missed the point that Viola had done nothing wrong. … I was very immature at the time and I didn’t have the awareness and self-confidence to publicly defend my sister.”
In her early seventies, Robson audited a CBU course that Reynolds taught in which he hailed her sister as a Canadian civil rights hero. “Then I understood the importance of what Viola had done by refusing to move from the ‘white seat’ at the movie theatre,” Robson told me.
Nurtured by the enduring support of her husband, Joseph Robson, she vowed to never let her sister’s legacy be forgotten.
So, I was heartened this past July 6 — on what would have been Viola Desmond’s 109th birthday — to visit Camp Hill cemetery in downtown Halifax. There, I laid flowers on the impressive new upright headstone that marks her grave, that of her devoted sister Wanda, and the future burial site of Joseph.
Desmond’s original flat marker remains near the official heritage signs that HRM finally installed, after a persistent community campaign, five decades after her death.
A former high school teacher who was born in England, Joseph Robson, 84, told me that he met his future wife, in the mid-1960s, at the lab where they both worked. “The manager was very strict about not letting others in the room where I washed scientific instruments,” he said. “But one day I saw Wanda in the hallway through a window in the door. We got to know each other better at a Chinese New Year party that a colleague organized.”
Laughing, he continued: “She was charmed by the red hair I had at the time.”
About their 50-plus year marriage, as an interracial couple, Robson said he followed the advice his mother gave him, despite the “ups and downs” of the union. “My mum said, ‘Son, if you love Wanda, tell her that every day because we can’t ever hear those words enough.’ And I did.”
Calling their journeys, “a thrill of a lifetime,” Robson said he reveled in accompanying his wife as they travelled throughout the country sharing Viola’s story. “All we ever really wanted was a plaque at the Roseland that explained what happened there and that it was wrong,” he said, noting that a heritage panel was placed at the building last August.
Robson continued: “All the other accolades Viola has received, especially the $10 bill, have been like a dream. We could have never imagined it. It still doesn’t seem real.”
He cited former Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis as the driving force behind the gleaming new black granite headstone. In 2010, Francis granted Desmond an unprecedented posthumous Royal Prerogative of Mercy Free Pardon that affirmed her innocence and wrongful conviction. “She never committed a crime,” Francis later said.
Francis lives near Camp Hill and said that she regularly visited Desmond’s plot. “Viola was an historical figure of high stature, so I didn’t like that her marker was flush with the ground,” she told me. “I was very close with Wanda and after she died, I had a dream about her. I woke up and decided to get a tombstone so the sisters could be together with other family members who are buried nearby.”
Delighted that his remains would be “in the best company,” Joseph Robson agreed to the plan. Apprised of the project, officials at CBU (home of the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice) offered to finance the new headstone. “It’s the finest quality and will never lose its shine,” said Jane Wile, the Halifax manager of Nelson Monuments who advised Francis on the marker’s design.
I’d wager that cosmic spirits have also played a part in the latest chapter of the poignant Desmond/Robson narrative. For records reveal that Wanda and Viola died within 24 hours of each other, both on a Sunday, 57 years apart; February 6 and February 7, respectively.
“Wow,” said a friend who joined me at the cemetery last week. “Viola was waiting for her little sister so they could meet up.”
Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life.