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.