Friday, April 16, 2010

Historians make history: vindicating Viola Desmond

Nova Scotia's posthumous apology and pardon to Viola Desmond, a black woman convicted in 1946 for taking a white's-only seat in a movie theatre in New Glasgow, has had lots of play in the media. Good. Not much notice, however, of the historical work that helped keep the story alive and created the groundswell for Nova Scotia's apology.

The racial insult was not forgotten in the Nova Scotia black community and civil rights organizations. But the first really authoritative retelling was by Ottawa legal historian Constance Backhouse, who devoted a long and immensely detailed chapter to the event in her 1999 book Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada 1900-1950, published by UTP for the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History. Backhouse's chapter helped inspire a short story, "One Down," by Dionne Brand that was published in the 2001 history/fiction anthology Story of A Nation. CBC presented a radio drama, "Living in Hope." The Beaver ran a cover story by Dean Jobb in April 2009. Gradually the story just became part of the narrative. Now comes the pardon.
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