Sign of the times
It’s a modest sign, of simple design. It reads “Viola Desmond Grave Site” and has an arrow pointing off to the side. You might miss it on a hurried walk through the grounds of Camp Hill cemetery, but this sign and its symbolic message speak volumes about the history of Nova Scotia.
Desmond was, of course, the unintentional civil rights pioneer who refused to move from the “whites-only” section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow in 1946, and was subsequently jailed and fined. In 2010, the Nova Scotia government issued a posthumous pardon.
I first saw this sign, not on foot, but on Facebook. “One meeting with the Province, a bunch of back and forths with the city, et voila. Joseph Howe isn’t the only one with a sign in the cemetery anymore,” reads the intriguing caption.
The page belonged to my friend Joanne Bealy. A few years ago she and her partner, Evelyn White, moved to Halifax from British Columbia. Their home is within hollering distance of mine. (I know, because Bealy and I tested this out last summer). Bealy is a talented poet and photographer, among other things. White is a respected author and journalist who was born in the U.S. Her writing often explores the experience of black women in North America.
The back story to the sign begins several years ago, well before White and Bealy moved to Halifax. White was writing an article about Desmond, and hoped to send a photographer to get a shot of her grave, which she assumed was in New York, since Desmond had died there. She contacted Wanda Robson, one of Desmond’s sisters, to get details of the location and learned that Desmond (neé Davis) was actually buried at Camp Hill cemetery in Halifax.
Eventually, White’s own path led her to Halifax, and she went on a personal quest in search of the grave. She found a humble marble square, flush to the ground, in the midst of the Davis family plot.
She noticed a sign pointing to the nearby grave of Joseph Howe. “I didn’t know who Joseph Howe was,” White admits. But later, she thought, “Here is this woman who, from my perspective as an African American, predated the incredible achievements of Rosa Parks…Why don’t more Canadians know there is this pioneering black woman in the graveyard in Halifax?”
The issue stayed on her mind and she mentioned it to a few prominent African Nova Scotians. Surprisingly, some had no idea that Desmond was buried at Camp Hill. The point grew more pertinent last year when the province determined that the first Heritage Day holiday in February 2015 would be named for Viola Desmond.
Halifax Councillor Waye Mason says former Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis contacted him around that time about getting an official marker for Viola Desmond’s gravesite in time for the holiday. He spoke with HRM staff about it in the spring of 2014. But you know how these things go: nothing happened for months. White and Bealy were not even aware of Francis’ request when Bealy began contacting provincial and municipal officials in her own quest to get some recognition for the historic site.
“When I wrote to the city officials, I sent them a picture of the Joseph Howe sign and said ‘It would be really great, with all the discussion and support of Viola Desmond, if you would also put a sign up for her,’” Bealy recalls.
She kept up the calls and emails, and her dogged persistence seems to have paid off. Mason says that after Bealy’s correspondence last August, he spoke to staff. “It was determined that the one signpost could be put up without council direction, and it was installed [in late October],” he told me by email. Council has since requested a staff report (at Mason’s initiative) on the possible development of a heritage management
plan for the Camp Hill cemetery, where Robert Stanfield and Alexander Keith are also buried.
It was a small, but significant, victory. Both White and Bealy are pleased that a sign now draws attention to Desmond’s resting place. “I just think Viola’s time has come,” says White. “She has been lying there all those years. She’s 100 years old now [she was born July 6, 1914 and died February 7, 1965] and I think that it’s only fitting. I hope that she’s resting well, and with some sense that her efforts have now been affirmed publicly.”
Desmond’s sister, Wanda Robson, says she and the rest of the family are thrilled. “This marker is an indication that her act and the ramifications of the act will never die,” she says.
White thinks it’s a step forward for Halifax. “I think that with the fraught racial history in this city, with Africville and the Home for Colored Children and all the other things, that the recognition is a positive,” says White. “Hopefully it will generate a greater sense of pride in everybody about the black presence here.”
She pauses, aware of the sweep of what she’s about to say. “The struggle continues, but Martin Luther King said, ‘the moral arc of the universe is long, but it leans toward justice.’” Then she grins broadly. “So now she’s got this marker that is shaped like an arc.”
Here’s to carrying that arc forward into February’s African Heritage Month celebrations.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.