Nine years before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Viola Desmond tried to sit in a whites-only section of a movie theater in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.
While she offered to pay the tax, she was convicted and fined 26 Canadian dollars, including court costs, at a trial at which the theater owner acted as the prosecutor and she was without a lawyer.
Now she is about to become the first black person — and the first woman other than Queen Elizabeth — to appear on Canadian currency. The new series of $10 bills is to be released this year.
“Outside of the Underground Railroad story, which has a fair amount of mythologizing around it, Canadians do not know about black Canadian history,” said Barrington Walker, a history professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “Black history was imagined as not central to the founding of the country.”
Underscoring Walker’s point, Desmond’s story was little known in Canada until her sister, Wanda Robson, began drawing attention to it after taking a course in 2003 on race relations. Robson, who unveiled the design of the bank note Thursday in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was 73 at the time of her studies at University College of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, the sisters’ home province.
Desmond was an entrepreneur whose Halifax-based business had its own line of cosmetics. They were sold by the graduates of the Desmond School of Beauty Culture in Halifax.
A business trip to Sydney, Nova Scotia led to the moment that would eventually become Desmond’s legacy. After her car broke down in New Glasgow, she made her way to the Roseland Theater.
Unaware of its segregation policy restricting black customers to the balcony, she requested a ground floor seat. The cashier, without informing Desmond, sold her a ticket for the balcony. Once inside, she was challenged by an usher but refused to move upstairs. The theater manager called the police and Desmond, then 32 years old, was arrested and held overnight in jail.
After her conviction, Desmond tried to sue the theater and to have her criminal conviction overturned. Both efforts failed. But Nova Scotia introduced laws banning segregation in 1954 and the province formally apologized to Desmond and issued a posthumous pardon in 2010. Desmond died in New York at age 50 and was buried in Halifax.
“Her legal challenge galvanized the black community in Halifax’s north end and paved the way for a broader understanding of human rights across our country,” Bill Moreau, the finance minister who made the final selection for the bills, said at the unveiling of the design last week.
With Desmond on its currency, Canada will join several other countries that have moved toward portraying women other than monarchs on their currency.
Last summer, Mark Carney, the Canadian who is governor of the Bank of England, announced that novelist Jane Austen would appear on Britain’s 10-pound notes. The United States has plans to put the black abolitionist Harriet Tubman on $20 bills, but the Trump administration may not go forward with them.
Two years ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who describes himself as a feminist and whose government requires departments to examine their programs to ensure gender equality, said the country would introduce a woman who was not the monarch on the front of its bank notes. In a first, the Bank of Canada asked the public for nominations.
More than 26,000 suggestions poured in. The list was culled to 461 women, and a panel of experts from a variety of fields produced a shorter list for the government.
“It was amazing,” said Jonathan Rose, a professor of political studies at Queen’s University who is a member of the panel that made the recommendations. “It’s a re-imagining of our currency and the role it plays in defining the country.”
Although Desmond becomes the first woman other than the queen to be featured alone on the front of a Canadian bank note, she is not the first woman on Canadian money. Last year, for Canada’s 150th anniversary, the Bank of Canada issued a small number of special bank notes on which Agnes Macphail, the first woman elected to Parliament, shares the front with three male politicians.
Images of unidentified women, usually allegorical or generic, have appeared on the reverse sides of Canadian bank notes on and off since 1935.
Before Canada changed its immigration laws in the 1960s, nonwhite people struggled to immigrate to the country. Halifax was one of the few places in Canada with a substantial black community. Walker said that until the past decade or so, Canadian were generally unaware of Nova Scotia’s segregation system.
Desmond, he said, has changed that.
“It’s one of the exciting things about the Viola Desmond story,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.