Sis­ter act

Rob­son’s work pre­serves mem­ory of her sis­ter’s courage


Wanda Rob­son is a firm be­liever in the power of ed­u­ca­tion.

Af­ter all, it wasn’t un­til she started tak­ing a class from Gra­ham Reynolds at Cape Breton Univer­sity in 2000 that she even re­al­ized how sig­nif­i­cant her sis­ter Vi­ola Des­mond was to this coun­try’s civil rights his­tory. In fact, her own ini­tial re­ac­tion to the whole sit­u­a­tion at the time when her sis­ter went to jail for not sit­ting in the “right” sec­tion of a New Glas­gow movie the­atre in 1946 was down­right em­bar­rass­ing, she ad­mit­ted to an en­thralled group of about 30 peo­ple who at­tended the ses­sion she and Reynolds gave on Wed­nes­day at CBU on the legacy of Vi­ola Des­mond’s Canada.

“I was 19 and work­ing as a lab tech­ni­cian,” said Rob­son, re­call­ing when a co-worker spoke about her sis­ter’s ar­rest at the ti­ime. “I’m ashamed to say I put my head down be­cause my sis­ter went to jail. I was 19. Kind of an id­iot. I was 19 and a young 19. I am ashamed that I did not see the sig­nif­i­cance of what she had done.”

Vi­ola Des­mond, who ran her own beauty salon in Hal­i­fax, cre­ated a line of her own prod­ucts which she sold around the prov­ince. Dur­ing a busi­ness trip to sell these prod­ucts, she had car trou­ble in New Glas­gow and ended up hav­ing to wait for a part to ar­rive. She went to see a movie at the Rose­land The­atre but wasn’t al­lowed to sit on the main floor where she had pur­chased a ticket. She re­fused to sit in the bal­cony des­ig­nated for blacks and was then forcibly re­moved from the the­atre, in­jured, and ar­rested.

She spent the night in jail, and was even charged with tax eva­sion for fail­ing to pay the one-cent dif­fer­ence in tax be­tween the bal­cony and main the­atre seats. She was fined $20 and later pur­sued the mat­ter fur­ther in court but that proved fruit­less and she died in 1965 with­out ever re­ceiv­ing any ac­knowl­edge­ment that she had been dis­crim­i­nated against. She was par­doned by the prov­ince in 2010.

Rob­son says she hadn’t even men­tioned what her sis­ter had done while rais­ing her chil­dren, al­though they all know now.

“This is where ed­u­ca­tion comes in,” says Rob­son. “I had to come here and have Gra­ham Reynolds tell me what was wrong with that headspace.

“It evolved — it started with ed­u­ca­tion.”

When Rob­son au­dited Reynolds’ class back in 2000, the pro­fes­sor had no idea just how far their work to­gether would go.

“We’re pro­mot­ing the ideals of ed­u­ca­tion and self-ful­fill­ment — I hap­pened to be the pro­fes­sor and Wanda walked into my class,” says Reynolds. “Both of us have in­spired each other.”

They’re both also in­spired by Des­mond, who was brave when it was a risky, dan­ger­ous thing to do. When asked for a word to de­scribe Des­mond, Reynolds said it had to be courage.

“We’re lulled into com­pla­cency but we should rise to the oc­ca­sion when faced with in­jus­tice,” he said.

At 90, Rob­son has made a con­certed ef­fort, along with Reynolds, to make sure her sis­ter re­ceives her due in Cana­dian his­tory. Since that ini­tial class, Rob­son took part in the writ­ing of two books, “Sis­ter To Courage” and “Vi­ola Des­mond’s Canada,” she saw the es­tab­lish­ment of the Vi­ola Des­mond Chair in So­cial Jus­tice at CBU, a postage stamp with Des­mond’s im­age in 2012, the an­nounce­ment that Des­mond would be on the $10 bill in 2018 and, in 2015, the prov­ince’s first Her­itage Day, which was called Vi­ola Des­mond Day. It’s been a lot of long, hard work but Rob­son says it’s been worth it.

“Ed­u­ca­tion, ed­u­ca­tion, ed­u­ca­tion,” said Rob­son. “I think we’re get­ting there but it’s been a slow process.”

Among those at­tend­ing Wed­nes­day’s event was He­lena MacNeil of Syd­ney who made a spe­cial trip to hear Rob­son speak and to meet her.

“I found it very emo­tional,” said MacNeil af­ter­wards. “What this lady did for us was so spe­cial.”


He­lena MacNeil, left, said she was thrilled Wed­nes­day to meet Wanda Rob­son, who gave a pre­sen­ta­tion on the legacy of Vi­ola Des­mond’s Canada at Cape Breton Univer­sity for African Her­itage Month.



Las­sana Di­a­bate from Mali plays the bal­a­fon dur­ing an event Wed­nes­day at Cape Breton Univer­sity for African Her­itage Month, where Wanda Rob­son and Gra­ham Reynolds spoke about the legacy of Vi­ola Des­mond’s Canada.

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