Still ‘long way to go’ to end racism, says Viola Desmond’s sister

Wanda Robson, sister of the late Viola Desmond, who was arrested 64 years ago for sitting in a whites-only section of a theatre in New Glasgow, speaks at Sydney Academy on Monday about her and her sister’s life.

Steve Wadden – Cape Breton Post

SYDNEY — The shift from explicit racism in Nova Scotia toward a greater sense of tolerance has been gradual, the sister of an iconic figure in Canadian civil rights says, and progress still needs to be made.

Topics :

Cape Breton University , Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board , Sydney Academy , New Glasgow , Halifax , Hants County

Wanda Robson made the comment Monday, 64 years to the day after her sister Viola Desmond was arrested for sitting in the section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow that was reserved for whites.

“If you go out every day and live your life every day, eventually it dawns on you that there is a change, change is coming, change came, but still with a long way to go,” she said, noting a recent cross-burning incident in Hants County.

“You realize this is 2010, Viola’s act was in 1946, we still have a long way to go, but I really feel more comfortable now than I did then …. We’ve got a lot of work to do. You’ve got a lot of work to do”

The Viola Desmond chair in social justice was also officially launched in Sydney on Monday as a partnership of Cape Breton University, the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board and Sydney Academy. Robson, who successfully fought to have her sister pardoned by the province earlier this year, also released a book “Sister to Courage.”

She noted she was 19 at the time of her sister’s arrest, and her initial reaction was embarrassment that Viola had been taken to jail. Years later she realized the significance of her sister’s actions, she said.

“I wasn’t really mature enough to understand the ramifications of what she’d done. It took me years later.”

Robson recalled growing up in north end Halifax, where there was a large black population, but said she “walked lightly” elsewhere in the city. There were stores and places that she avoided, and as late as the 1970s she was denied service at a hair salon.

“I didn’t want any confrontation,” she said.

After returning to Halifax after living in the U.S. for several years, Robson had difficulty finding someone in south end Halifax willing to rent an apartment to her and her children.

She later moved to North Sydney, eventually purchasing a house in 1981, and the previous owner canvassed the neighbourhood to gauge their opinion of it being sold to a black woman.

Robson said she wanted her sister’s act of defiance to be acknowledged.

“All I wanted was some sort of recognition of the fact of what she had done in New Glasgow,” Robson said. “I had to educate myself about racism, believe it or not, I had to find out exactly just what it is and why it is … I said to myself, ‘OK, this is it.’ I’m just amazed that this journey has reached this proportion. I’m thankful to everyone who’s had a role in this, and as I say, my parents would be so proud.”

(As recent as the 1970’s a very good friend of mine who joined with me and was black told me when I met him once in Halifax that he couldn’t get a hair cut in any white barber shop in Halifax or Dartmouth. I was so upset that I started running around checking on barber shops to see if he was right. Sure enough I didnt find one who agreed to cut a black man’s hair. One barber told me he couldn’t because to cut a black’s hair was like cutting steel wool and it would ruin his instruments. – CAPER)


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