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The young woman stood up in front of the photographers, with a broad smile as she accepted a prestigious award, given to only four students at the University of Alberta that year. from University president Andrew Stewart. Next to her stood a man who would become one of the greatest premiers in Canadian history, beside him was a man who would advise a prime minister. On the other side of her, was a man who became one of the best lawyers in Edmonton.
She was among esteemed company. But none shared her background.
Her ancestors were enslaved in the United States, who had free children after the Civil War. Those free children moved to Oklahoma, and their children moved to Canada.
In their new home, they faced anger, discrimination and outright racism. Her parents persevered, and now she stood side by side with other elite students.
To get there Violet King shattered a few barriers already, and she was going to shatter several more in the years to come.
I’m Craig Baird and this is Canadian History Ehx!
Violet King’s story doesn’t begin with her but with her paternal grandparents in 1911 who took advantage of ample land available to immigrants and moved from Oklahoma to Alberta. Her grandparents, unnamed in my research, were fleeing the United States, and Jim Crow laws and the Canadian government was enticing American farmers to settle north of the 49 this included Black Americans. Oklahoma became a state in 1907, and had laws limiting basic rights and freedoms for Black Americans.
They were denied the right to vote, were refused entry to some public places and were forced to attend segregated schools. Between 1905 and 1912, 1,500 Black Americans immigrated from Oklahoma to Saskatchewan and Alberta. This was an unexpected and unwanted turn of events for the Canadian government who wanted settlers, but only white settlers. Even though Black Americans made up less than one percent of the American immigration to Canada, it was still too much.
The Edmonton Chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire petitioned the Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver. They stated that they were alarmed by the influx of Black settlers and believed it would discourage white settlers. The Edmonton Board of Trade followed suit on April 25, 1911, giving a similarly worded petition to the minister.
Around this time, there was a debate in the House of Commons over Black immigration. I won’t repeat the quotes used as they are racially insensitive and filled with slurs, but needless to say the federal government did not want Black immigrants coming to Canada and was prepared to put legislation in place to stop it.
And they did…
Black Americans immigrating to Canada could be denied tickets for trains bound for Canada, they would be told that it was far too cold for them in Canada, and the government would simply ignore their applications for homesteads. Immigration agents in the United States were even paid bonuses for each Black family they turned away. At the Canadian border, white immigrants were given a quick examination before entering Canada, while Black immigrants were subjected to intense physical exams and days of waiting. One child was rejected simply because he had a broken arm.
On Aug. 12, 1911,Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s cabinet put forward an Order-in-Council stating,
“For a period of one year from and after the date hereof the landing in Canada shall be and the same is prohibited of any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.”
The Order-in-Council was never implemented because immigration agents and officials had slowed Black immigration down to a trickle by then and on Oct. 5, 1911, the order was repealed. Black immigration to western Canada essentially came to a halt by the mid-1910s. Violet King’s grandparents endured these conditions and arrived in Canada in 1911 to settle in the community of Amber Valley, located a couple hours north of Edmonton. They were part of the original wave of Black immigrants to the Canadian West that so alarmed the government of the time.
The descendants of those who settled in this community also included Oliver Bowen, the man who designed the Calgary C-Train system which became a shining example of public transit in Canada; Cheryl Foggo, an award-winning writer, and Floyd Sneed, the drummer for the band Three Dog Night. Amber Valley is long gone, just a few buildings and some plaques remain, but the impact of the original settlers lives on.
By 1919, Violet’s parents moved to Calgary and settled in the area of Hillhurst-Sunnyside. Her father, John, worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway as a sleeping car porter, while her mother, Stella, was a seamstress. Violet would enter the world on Oct. 18, 1929, in Calgary.
She had three siblings, Vern, Lucille and Ted. Her mother said that while growing up Violet was always one to have her head in a book. In high school, Violet became the president of the Girls’ Association and her grade 12 yearbook caption read “Violet wants to be a criminal lawyer.”
This was no small goal, being both a woman and a Black Canadian put two barriers in front of that pursuit. In 1948, she took her first step towards achieving her goals.
Violet enrolled at the University of Alberta and paid for her tuition by giving piano lessons. At the time, there were 142 students in the Faculty of Law, and only three were women. In her 1951-52 school year, she was selected as class historian and served as the Alberta representative to the International Student Services Conference in Hamilton. She was also the president of the house committee at Pembina Hall, which was the girls’ residence at the university, and the vice president of the Golden Key Society.
She also served as the vice-president of the student union, and was a member of the Women’s Disciplinary Committee. To say she was filling her schedule during school would be an understatement. At the end of that school year, she received the Executive A gold ring, the award I mentioned at the start of the episode, along with her classmates Peter Lougheed, Garth Fryett and Ivan Head. After graduating with her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952, she received her law degree in 1953.
With her graduation from law school, she became the only woman in her graduating class, and also the first Black person to graduate from law school in Alberta.
Two years later in 1956 she said of her achievement,
“People told me it wasn’t a good idea for a girl to be a lawyer, particularly a coloured girl, so I went ahead.”
After she graduated from law school, Violet articled at the firm of Edward McCormick, a criminal trial lawyer. During that year with him, she worked on five murder trials, which was a heavy workload for the new lawyer. On June 2, 1954, Violet was called to the Alberta Bar, and became the first Black female lawyer to practice law in Canada.
Edward McCormick the lawyer she worked for when she first came out of law school presented her and said
“I have an applicant which ranks as one of the most pleasant I have ever made in my court. During the year, many articles made it difficult and strenuous. Miss King measured up in everything she was asked to do and even more. She is qualified to be a barrister and solicitor of Alberta.”
During the ceremony Judge W.A. Macdonald said,
“It takes courage, perseverance and sacrifice to carry through to a successful conclusion all these things you have accomplished. Your success in studies makes you well-qualified in every way for the honor now being conferred upon you.”
He added that he wanted to say her troubles were at an end, but that her difficulties were only beginning.
Upon passing the bar, Violet simply said,
“I think there is a wonderful field of opportunity for girls in the legal profession. More girls should go into law.”
But it would take a decade before another Black person, Lionel Jones, was admitted to the Alberta Bar. In the meantime her several newspapers wrote of accomplishment giving her nationwide attention. Thee president and vice-president of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids came from New York and Detroit to honour her personally.
For the next several years, she practiced law in Alberta, working at the firm of A.M. Harradence and faced discrimination, due to her gender and race. She felt she had to work harder to be noticed.
In 1955, she said,
“It is too bad that a Japanese, Chinese, or colored girl has to outshine others to secure a position.”
She spoke about the challenges women faced in the workplace, stating that she hoped in the future, a person’s ability and not their gender or race would be the focus. In 1958, at a conference at the Banff School of Fine Arts she said,
“I don’t think women have become very generally accepted with favor in the legal field. I’ve been discriminated against, not because I’m coloured, but because I’m a lawyer, a field some feel a woman shouldn’t be operating in.”
Vernon Trott, a human relations expert from Toronto responded that women were typically only waiting to get married, so there was a feeling they would not stay long in the profession, hence why there were no female department heads.
To which Violet responded,
“Women wouldn’t resent the discrimination if there was any guarantee that would be so. The battle for equal work represented not so much a desire for money among women but a desire for status.”
As a lawyer in Alberta, she defended women’s rights, spoke out on the importance of equal pay legislation.
In April 1956, Violet was offered a position with Citizenship and Immigration in Ottawa. To take on her new job, she became a non-practicing member of the Law Society of Alberta.
She said she loved practicing law, and said,
“If they hadn’t given it to me, I would never have given up practicing law. I wasn’t looking for any job. I was looking for THAT job.”
As she got acquainted with her new position and the people she would be working with she spent several months travelling around Montreal, southern Ontario and the Maritimes. This meant meeting with organizations such as the YWCA, stated that having those contacts would be very valuable. And you’ll see that she would be right about that In May 1958, she participated in the United Nations Internship Course for civil servants where she was one of two women out of 30 in attendance…28 were men.
This is when she met Eleanor Roosevelt and was given a tour of her house.
She spent seven years with the department of Citizenship and Immigration, and eventually directed programs with the Canadian Citizenship Council. Her job consisted of travelling the country to meet with community leaders.
“In my position, I have learned to appreciate just how much the building of good citizenship depends on the work of the organizations in the community.”
She was often asked to speak at events and, she never hesitated to speak about racism and her hopes for gender and race equality in Canada. She worked under Ellen Fairclough, the Minister of Immigration and the first woman in Canadian history to hold a federal cabinet post. During their time there the department introduced the new Bill of Rights, to help eliminate discrimination and opened up Canada’s immigration policy to allow more non-white immigrants into the country.
This would make it easier for people like Violet’s grandparents who endured so much hardship half a century earlier. In 1963, she moved to New Jersey to become the executive director for Newark YMCA’s community branch. Working for the YMCA, she helped Black applicants find employment. Two years later, she married Godfrey C. Henry, with whom she had one child in 1966, Jo-Anne Henry.
“One advantage of having my daughter when I was 36 was that I had been working for a great many years in jobs where I could travel. I had the chance to be independent, had a job I was well into, and was earning a good enough salary that there was no problem about getting baby sitters.”
In 1969, they moved to Chicago where she continued to work for the YMCA. In 1976, she was appointed as the executive director of the National Council of YMCA’s Organizational Development Group, making her the first woman named to an executive position in the organization.
Sadly, she passed away far too soon. On March 30, 1982, at the age of 52, Violet King died of cancer in New York.
A few months before her death, her mother talked to the Calgary Herald about Violet as a Black Canadian,
“I don’t know why they can’t take people as people instead of worrying about their colour.”
For decades in Canada, following her death Violent King went ignored while people like legendary black cowboy John Ware were honoured with roads, buildings and even a mountain range in Alberta. King’s white classmate, Peter Lougheed, has an entire provincial park named for him, a mountain and many roads and buildings.
Yet there was little for Violet. When Violet died, there were no mentions of it in any Canadian newspapers. It took l four decades for Violet to be recognized. In February 2021, Federal Building Plaza, which can be viewed from the Alberta Legislature, was renamed Violet King Henry Plaza.
Leela Sharon Aheer, then Minister of Culture , said,
“Violet King Henry defied expectations and broke barriers at every step of life. It is inspiring to think of her bravery and her perseverance and her passion to live her dreams.”
A giant mural of Violet was painted on Horizon Housing in Calgary , measuring three storeys tall. It shows her in her judicial gown, as she passed the Alberta Bar. In February 2022, Heritage Calgary installed a commemorative plaque on her childhood home in Hillcrest-Sunnyside. In August of that same year, her former school, the University of Alberta, established the Violet King Henry Law School Award. This $20,000 award is given to a student who identifies as Black, African-Canadian, African-American, or Afro-Caribbean heritage and who has demonstrated academic standing, leadership and a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion.
On hand to see the award presented for the first time was Jo-Anne Henry, Violet’s daughter and she said,
“It is really exciting that this award is going to facilitate students every year to be able to be at such a great law school, her law school. The idea that it might be the difference between some students being able to go to law school at all would mean the world to her.”
That is the story and legacy of Violet King but she wasn’t the only one in the family to fight against discriminatory practices in Canada.[TRANSITION]
After graduating from high school in Calgary, Ted King, Violet’s brother, joined the Canadian military and served in England at a postal station from 1943 to 1946. Upon finishing his war service, he began working as a porter for the Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, just like his father had. During this time, he attended night school and received an accounting diploma.
By 1953, he was married and the couple moved to the West Hillhurst area of Calgary, where a neighbour petitioned to prevent them from moving in. No one signed the petition, and the neighbour moved away instead. From 1958 to 1961, Ted was the president of the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. In 1959, while looking for a friend who was staying at the Barclay’s Hotel in Calgary, he was told the hotel didn’t allow Black people.
To test this, Ted tried to book a room and was denied.
So Ted launched a legal challenge and on April 7, 1960, the case was dismissed. It was found that the motel owner didn’t need to follow the Innkeepers Act because he didn’t serve food and not an inn. The act didn’t allow for discrimination based on race. Ted appealed it all the way to the Alberta Supreme Court, which maintained the ruling.
While he lost that case, later that year the Alberta Legislature closed the loophole in the Innkeepers Act by eliminating the food requirement, forcing all places in the province that offered accommodations to do so for anyone who paid. Because of Ted King, no one could be denied a hotel stay due to their race.[OUTRO]
Information from RetroActive, Calgary Herald, Canadian Encyclopedia, University of Alberta Faculty of Law, Wikipedia, Legal Archives Society of Canada, Edmonton Journal, the Calgary Albertan, Montreal Gazette,