On Friday, Landry recounted how Viola Desmond — “a strong woman of the day, a feminist of her time” — was en route to Cape Breton when she developed car trouble around New Glasgow on Nov. 8, 1946.

To kill time while her car was being repaired, Desmond, who operated a successful Halifax beauty parlour and school, decided to see what was playing at Roseland Theatre.

The young black woman didn’t know that the Roseland’s owners operated a racially segregated business: whites on the main floor, blacks up in the balcony.

All hell broke loose when Desmond decided to walk into the downstairs section so that her weak eyes could actually see Olivia de Havilland star in The Dark Mirror.

The owners called police. Desmond spent the night in jail. The next day, since segregation wasn’t officially a Nova Scotia law, she was found guilty on a technicality — a minor tax violation.

The courts ruled against her when she appealed. But we know her name because Desmond’s brave stand, nine years before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, marked the beginning of the end of segregation in this province.

Landry has his own personal connection to the story. In 2010, a New Glasgow lawyer named Frank DeMont — in the interests of full disclosure, my first cousin — approached the justice minister about doing something to redress the historic wrong Desmond suffered in New Glasgow.

Now, she’s received a posthumous official pardon, the first in Canada, along with an official apology from the Nova Scotia government. As well, last February, the first Nova Scotia Heritage Day honoured her for her role in advancing civil rights in the province.

Ray Pentz, the owner of the new establishment in the old address, has found a different way to honour her memory: a permanent display with a plaque and photo in the business marquee at his dance club and cabaret.

“What I wondered was why wasn’t it done before,” the 35-year-old said Friday.


DeMONT: Viola Desmond honoured on site that once did her wrong | The Chronicle Herald