Collection MG 21.14 - Wanda Robson & Viola Desmond Collection

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Wanda Robson & Viola Desmond Collection

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CA BI MG 21.14

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  • 1890-2017 (Creation)

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0.19 m of textual records and other material

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Biographical history

Wanda Eloise Robson (née Wanda Davis) was born December 16, 1926, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as one of fifteen children born to James Albert Davis and Gwendolyn Irene Davis. She attended Sir Charles Tupper School, Alexandra School, Bloomfield Junior High School, and graduated from Queen Elizabeth High School. Upon graduating high school, she began working as a lab assistant for the Federal Fisheries department in Halifax. She had three children, Stephen Neal, Jeff Neal, and Gordon Neal, and raised them as a single mother until she married Joe Robson in 1971. The couple moved to North Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1975. In 2004, Wanda completed a Bachelor of Arts (BA) at the University College of Cape Breton (UCCB, now Cape Breton University(CBU)). Wanda experienced racial discrimination throughout her life and after graduating with her BA, became an activist, speaking about being a Black Nova Scotian and telling her sister, Viola Desmond's, story. Robson's work led to Viola Desmond’s posthumous pardon in 2010 and she created a lasting legacy for herself and her sister. In 2010, Robson published Sister to Courage: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Canada's Rosa Parks, which recounted the courage and ambition of Viola Desmond and the Davis family. Due to her work, Wanda received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from CBU in 2012. She died in Sydney, Nova Scotia on February 6, 2022.

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Biographical history

Viola Irene Desmond (née Viola Davis) was born July 6, 1914, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as one of fifteen children born to James Albert Davis and Gwendolyn Irene Davis. Desmond attended Sir Joseph Howe Elementary School and Bloomfield High School before working as a teacher at two racially segregated schools in Preston, Nova Scotia and Hammonds Plains, Nova Scotia. In 1936, she enrolled in the Field Beauty Culture School in Montréal, Quebec, one of the few institutions that accepted Black students. She continued her education in New York, New York and in 1940 received a diploma from the Apex College of Beauty Culture and Hairdressing in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Viola married Jack Desmond, a barber, in 1936 and the two settled in Halifax. In 1937, Desmond opened Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture on Gottingen Street and started a beauty product line, Vi’s Beauty Products, which catered to Black women's needs. In addition to the salon, Viola started the Desmond School of Beauty Culture where Black students could learn hairdressing in Atlantic Canada. On November 8, 1946, Desmond refused to move from the whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, an act that resulted in a conviction for tax evasion, which cemented her as a significant figure in the Civil Rights Movement in Canada. Desmond received an official apology and a Grant of Free Pardon from the Province of Nova Scotia in 2010. She died in New York City on February 7, 1965.

Custodial history

Records were collected and maintained by Dr. Wanda Robson (Hon.) and her husband, Joe Robson, and were donated to the Beaton Institute on June 9, 2016. Digital copies of photographs of the Davis family were given to the Robsons by Emily Clyke and Sharon Clyke, with the original photographs being returned to the Clykes in Montreal, Quebec. Dr. Graham Reynolds, Cape Breton University's (CBU) Viola Desmond Chair for Social Justice, facilitated the donation.

Scope and content

Collection consists of records related to Viola Desmond’s 1946 arrest at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and her posthumous 2010 free pardon granted by the Government of Nova Scotia. Also included are materials related to Viola Desmond and Wanda Robson’s civil rights work in Nova Scotia, including newspaper clippings and articles, diplomas, certificates, scholarship and bursary documents, a scrapbook and materials related to Robson’s education and published book, Sister to Courage. Included are photographs of the extended Davis family and published books about the Black Nova Scotian experience.

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      For commercial use (broadcast, exhibition, publication) or public licensing of materials found in this collection please contact the Beaton Institute for more information.

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