This week, more than 53 years after her death, Desmond became the first black person and the first woman other than a royal to appear on the front of a regularly circulating Canadian bank note, replacing Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, as the face of the new vertically oriented $10 bill.
“It’s unbelievable to think that my sister — a black woman — is on the $10 bill,” Wanda Robson, Desmond’s 91-year-old sister, said at the bank note’s unveiling Monday at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. “The queen is in good company.”
The bill also shows a map of Halifax’s historic north end, which was home to one of Canada’s oldest black communities and also where Desmond was raised.
Before her visit to the movie theater in 1946, Desmond, who for a short time taught at a segregated school, was no stranger to systemic racism. When she left her teaching job to launch a career as a beautician, Desmond was forced to travel out of the province for training because beauty schools in Nova Scotia barred black people from enrolling.
Canada had no Jim Crow-like laws, but it did have policies that enforced segregation, said Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who has written extensively on Desmond.
The policies were “just as bad as Jim Crow,” Backhouse said, but they were written in a way that “masked” their racist intent.
Black Nova Scotians often complained, “At least in the United States, you know where the segregated facilities are,” she added.
Despite these obstacles, Desmond opened her own beauty studio. In fact, the episode that thrust her into the history books happened while she was on a business trip.
When her Dodge sedan broke down in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia — about 100 miles from Halifax — Desmond, then 32, decided to pass the time waiting for her car to be fixed by going to the Roseland Theatre for a screening of “The Dark Mirror,” a psychological thriller and murder mystery.
She bought a ticket and headed to the ground floor because she had trouble seeing. But she was called back and told that her ticket was for the balcony.
Realizing that her request was being refused because of her race, Desmond returned to the ground floor. She was arrested — losing her purse and a shoe in the resulting scuffle — and spent 12 hours in jail, where she was never told of her legal right to counsel or to seek bail.
Desmond was charged with tax evasion for failing to pay 1 cent — the difference in the sales tax on the floor and balcony seats. Despite the theater’s refusal to sell her the more expensive floor seat, she was convicted and fined $26.
She fought the conviction, and her lawyer asked the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to overturn the lower court’s decision, but this proved fruitless. Rather than arguing that the theater was using a racially neutral tax law to enforce segregation, her lawyer tried to get the decision overturned on a technicality.
Despite the court’s decision, one of the justices did wonder “if the manager who laid the complaint was so zealous because of a bona fide belief that there had been an attempt to defraud the province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavor to force a Jim Crow style rule by misuse of a public statute.”
Desmond suffered personal and professional repercussions as a result of her fight for racial equality, which helped spark a movement that dismantled segregation in Nova Scotia in 1954, Backhouse said. She was alone when she died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage in 1965.
In 2010, the province of Nova Scotia offered an apology and granted Desmond a posthumous pardon.
Her journey to the front of the $10 bill began two years ago when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed the Bank of Canada to put a woman who wasn’t a monarch on the front of a bank note. Desmond was selected after an open call for nominations and a public survey.
Backhouse, who spent the weekend in Nova Scotia at celebrations marking the introduction of the bill, said many black Canadians there were planning to give out the bank notes as gifts.
“Canadians are more polite about their historical racism,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to let them know about their history.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 1 cent Desmond was charged with failing to pay was the price difference between the floor and balcony seats. It was the difference in the sales tax on the price of those seats. This post has been updated.