A Black Woman Who Defied Segregation in Canada Will Appear on Its Currency

viola desmondOTTAWA — Nine years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Jim Crow-era bus in Montgomery, Ala., Viola Desmond tried to sit in a whites-only section of a movie theater in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.

Ms. Desmond, a businesswoman who had her own line of cosmetics and who died in 1965, was prosecuted for trying to defraud the provincial government of 1 cent — the difference in sales tax for a seat in the balcony, where blacks were expected to sit and the whites-only ground floor ticket price. While she offered to pay the tax, she was convicted and fined 26 Canadian dollars, including court costs, at a trial at which the theater owner acted as the prosecutor and she was without a lawyer.

Now she is about to become the first black person — and the first woman other than a British royal — to appear alone on Canadian currency. The new series of $10 bills is to be released this year.

“Outside of the Underground Railroad story, which has a fair amount of mythologizing around it, Canadians do not know about black Canadian history,” said Barrington Walker, a history professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “Black history was imagined as not central to the founding of the country.”

Underscoring Mr. Walker’s point, Ms. Desmond’s story was little known in Canada until her sister, Wanda Robson, began drawing attention to it after taking a course in 2003 on race relations. Ms. Robson, who unveiled the design of the bank note last Thursday in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was 73 at the time of her studies at University College of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, the sisters’ home province.


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