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Learning our Past and Improving our Future

Black History Month

(Viola Desmond)

As the staff met together at the end of January, we considered how we might highlight Black History Month during February. We wondered who would be someone we could highlight? … and wouldn’t it be nice if that person were Canadian and had a faith background?

The name Viola Desmond came up. I knew that she must be a significant person to be on our $10 bill, but I did not know if she had a faith background, and if so, whether it played a role in the story that gave her a place on our Canadian currency. So I took a look, and I was not disappointed. Her faith did play a significant part in her story.

For those of you who do not know, Viola Desmond is sometimes referred to as Canada’s Rosa Parks. Just like Rosa Parks stood her ground as she sat in a seat reserved for white people on a bus, here in Canada, Viola stood her ground as she sat in a theatre seat that was reserved for white people.

Viola Desmond lived in Nova Scotia, and on November 8, 1946, she decided to watch a movie in a theatre in New Glasgow. Viola was short-sighted and wanted to sit close to the screen, but that area was reserved for people with white skin. The clerk refused to sell her that kind of ticket, even though she was prepared to pay the additional cost. So Viola bought a ticket for a seat in the section where she was allowed but went and sat closer to the front anyway. She was arrested and spent half a day in jail.

Instead of arguing about her skin colour, they said the problem was actually about not buying the right ticket and therefore not paying proper taxes because tickets for that section cost more. This was confusing since they refused to sell her the ticket when she asked for one. The dispute ended up going to court over tax avoidance – failure to pay a single cent of taxes to the government!

This was unfair but Viola was unsure how to proceed. She was part of Cornwallis Street African Baptist Church in Nova Scotia, now known as New Horizons Baptist Church, and I am proud to say that the congregation saw this injustice and helped her fight against it. The long and difficult court case ended unfairly at the time, but this was part of the beginning of change for people of colour in Canada.

I’m sorry to say that it took so long, but finally, in 2010, 64 years after it happened, the Canadian government did apologize, erased the tax evasion charge against Viola, and made compensation to her family for the injustice of the situation.

Unfortunately, Viola died in 1965 so she didn’t get to experience the change, but she was one of the people who helped our nation realize how wrong it is to racially segregate people.

Our own Canadian Baptist denomination has been building bridges as well. In an article written by Rev. Allister Johnson for Acadia Divinity College about the African United Baptist Association (AUBA), it is clear that there have been separate black and white associations of churches in Eastern Canada which both are part of our Canadian Baptist Family. It is a sign of progress that in more recent years, members of the AUBA have gained more representation in prominent roles among Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada and we are seeing less segregation.

We need to continue to build positive relationships with our black brothers and sisters. We need to be aware of injustices. I am sorry that I have not known the many painful stories. I know now that they are there and I am thankful for February to remind us to look deeper and learn more about our history no matter how difficult it may be. It is only the beginning of how we can help contribute to the justice that is deserved.

We need to know the past so we can shape the future in a better way.

Isaiah 1:17a “Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed.”

To read more details please read the online links below:

This article was adapted from information found in an article on Viola Desmond from Wikipedia

and the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada via Acadia Divinity College "Heritage Story: The African United Baptist Association"

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