Where does freedom come from?
This week, as millions take to their backyards and gather in the name of two big national holidays, we celebrate Canada Day and Independence Day. This year is a pivotal moment – a time when the history of our freedom matters more than ever.
Of the thousands of stories that showcase what freedom means, there are two that seem particularly relevant. I invite you to meet two women who used their passion for beauty and hair care products. Their “brush” with history, pun intended, helped to start two of the many fires that became catalysts for the civil rights movement in both Canada and the U.S.
History-maker, Viola Desmond
Desmond civil rights fight in a small movie theatre in New Glasgow, Novia Scotia. Picture her hurrying in to catch the show and finding the only seat available was in the white-seating only section. She knew it would cost her an extra penny to sit there but she was willing to pay when the manager came round and asked her to move.
But he didn’t want her money. Desmond was tired of paying to be Black so she refused to give up that seat on July 30th in 1946. She had put up with enough. So the police were called and Desmond was dragged away and thrown in jail. The courts fined her for tax evasion. She found them guilty of racism and prejudice and discrimination. She would fight, even a lifetime if it took that long.
It did and it cost Desmond more than pennies to clear her name. But something happened that was much bigger than even Desmond could know: her resistance was a launching pad for galvanizing a civil rights movement in Nova Scotia.
Like most people, Desmond just wanted to be happy and this meant becoming a successful beautician and business owner. But Blacks were barred from attending beauty school in Nova Scotia so Desmond traveled to Montreal where she was allowed to learn. She hoped her career would help her to escape the poverty and the injustice that enslaved Black Canadians.
Desmond was gritty. She was ambitious. And she became a successful entrepreneur who developed her own line of hair and beauty products. She took her sales on the road while she battled the courts to reclaim her good name. The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People and her lawyer fought for her too.
But after finally losing most of her saving, Desmond decided to start afresh and enrolled in business college in New York. Sadly, she had no idea that her stomach pains were so serious and she died in 1965 from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage. She was just 50 years old. Her story, like so many stories of Black Canadians, exposed the systemic discrimination in North America.
Black Canadians Segregated to Nova Scotia’s Africville
We know the history of Canada was built on British expansionism and the domination of native and indigenous peoples. But how many of us really understood this when we were growing up in Toronto. I know I didn’t. This wasn’t in my history books.
Back in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Blacks could own land in Nova Scotia if they paid taxes but they were forced to live in segregated communities in an area called Africville. Africville was home to hundreds of individuals and families who settled there, many tracing their roots in Nova Scotia back to the late 1700s. Blacks who traveled north from the United States after the Civil War joined these settlements, but were also forced to accept inferior conditions that denied them of basic home services like running water, paved roads and waste disposal.
In 1946, Desmond fought to keep her seat before the well-known story of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up hers on a bus in 1955. Desmond’s success as a beautician and brave fight actually resembles another spirited freedom fighter named Madame C. J. Walker.
Born Sarah Breedlove, CJ Walker changed her name and became a household name after marrying Charles Joseph Walker in 1906.
His experience in marketing and sales helped her to create an advertising push for the line of hair and beauty products she had developed for Black women. Walker achieved unprecedented success as a entrepreneur, influencing social and political causes for women and Blacks.
Orphaned at the young age of 7 after her mother died of cholera and her father passed a year later, Walker learned the power of believing in herself. She build a life on grit and hard work, on her own terms. She never gave up hope and would go on to become the first self-made female millionaire in America.
Walker’s products for Black women addressed hair loss and baldness from the poor diets and harsh lye products they used. Walker suffered from severe dandruff and baldness herself, so she used her personal story to transform her hair with her own products. She also created a brilliant image for herself that reflected the growing allure of Parisian products.
C.J. Walker Transformed Her Life Through Beauty Products
Like Desmond, Walker advocated for women and Blacks her entire life. Walker hired her daughter to run the factory she built and women to dominate the workings and management of her plant. By 1919, Walker employed thousands of women before she suffered from kidney failure and died that year at her lavish estate in Irvington, New York.
Both Madame C.J. and Viola Desmond planted seeds of change, even though this change was not realized quickly enough. In 2010, Nova Scotia’s Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis posthumously pardoned Desmond’s conviction for tax evasion. I was lucky enough to experience history several years ago when I traveled on the Halifax Transit ferryboat that had been renamed for Desmond in 2016.
Like Desmond, Walker is finally being recognized and celebrated for her courage and achievements. She’s the subject of a Netflix mini-series and her story inspires all women to build the life they want to live. Desmond and Walker never gave up hope and their uncompromising spirit and determination in the face of prejudice and suffering.
Yes, their legacies recall Canadian and American racism, but they tell a new story – the change that’s possible when good people of every color stand up and fight, together. They also show us that today, in the face of renewed attempts to ensure greater equality and freedom from hatred and prejudice, we can build lasting progress and honor our enshrined national belief that all men and women are created equally.