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Gottingen Street will soon be site of an artistic Viola Desmond tribute

The North End Business Assocation and The Viola Desmond Legacy Committee want the public’s opinion on how to commemorate Halifax's civil rights icon in the North End
Viola Desmond school
Viola Desmond with the 1947 graduating class of the Desmond School of Beauty Culture

A group is asking for the public’s opinion about how one of Halifax’s most influential figures should be commemorated.

75 years ago, Viola Desmond was arrested for sitting in a whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre, igniting a civil rights movement in Nova Scotia and setting off the debate about racial segregation in the province.

Now, the iconic figurehead will receive a permanent commemoration on Gottingen Street in the north end of Halifax — and organizers from the North End Business Association (NEBA) and the Viola Desmond Legacy Committee will consider input.

“The multiple locations that we can gaze at Viola and engage in a conversation about who is she, what did she do — there’s so much to learn from it,” says Sylvia Parris-Drummond, committee board member about the future commemoration to be located on Gottingen Street.

“As you know, in terms of Gottingen area itself, that’s where her home was, that’s where her business was operating out of so a very dear place for the local Black community and for us generally in terms of community and broader community.”

While Desmond is certainly most recognized for her act of courage to stand up for civil rights in 1946, there is much more to the woman’s legacy to commemorate.

After all, a budding entrepreneur, Desmond traveled to Montreal and New York to train as a hairdresser and beautician after discovering beauty schools in Nova Scotia would not accept Black students.

Soon after, Desmond opened a salon as well as a beauty school of her own in Halifax. In addition, she created a line of cosmetics and became a very successful businesswoman in the 1940s.

“It didn’t have the prominence that it deserves,” says Parrish-Drummond of Desmond’s business acumen, adding that the pioneer began receiving more attention publicly after she was granted an official apology and pardon from the province in 2010. “(She was) just such an example of agency, voice and resilience and persistence and all those kind of amazing things that we’re learning from her.”

As for the prospective commemorative art piece, the group aims to unveil the tribute in 2022 close to where Desmond’s business was located.

As well, it will aim to “honour the life and legacy of Viola Desmond and highlight her contributions to the Black Community,” according to a news release.

However, details regarding the public community consultation to gain insight and ideas on how that tribute should take form remains somewhat vague.

“I don’t think the process has been fully flushed out,” adds Parris-Drummond, who is also executive director of the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute. “I do know that right now as well we need community consultation and community voice around what might be, things to consider (so) that will be part of the finalizing process.”

Parris-Drummond adds she anticipates consultations to occur within the next month and may possibly take place virtually as well as in person. Those interested in receiving updates are encouraged to email events@gonorthhalifax.com.

In the meantime, Parris-Drummond is thrilled to see Viola Desmond finally receiving such a personal tribute so close to the community she called home.

While the civil rights icon has been recognized through the naming of the Viola Desmond ferry in Halifax, a mural in Mulgrave Park, as the face of Canada’s latest $10 bill and other acts of recognition, her simple stand against social injustice is still continuing to inspire advocates today.

“The thing that we can build our strength from is, that long ago a Black woman was able to make a stand against injustice,” says Parris-Drummond. “So the lesson for us today as we continue to fight against injustice is that your voice matters and that you should stand up for yourself. That model is there from Viola Desmond’s legacy.”

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