“People told me it wasn’t a good idea for a girl to be a lawyer, particularly a coloured girl — so I went ahead,” Violet King said on May 5, 1956. Fighting discrimination and obstacles, King set many firsts, starting with being the first black Canadian to earn a law degree in Alberta.
Long before Violet Pauline King was born, her grandparents immigrated to Canada from Oklahoma. The situation for blacks in the state was dangerous, with violent mobs and brutal lynchings spreading waves of anxiety. Canada could be a haven of opportunity and safety.
The family settled in Keystone, Alta., a new all-black settlement southwest of Edmonton (now the village of Breton). The fledgling community faced a difficult start due to anti-immigrant and anti-black sentiment from the public and some government officials.
Bending to voter opinion to limit immigration, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier proposed Order-in-Council P.C. 1911-1324 on Aug. 12, 1911. The petition was to block “any immigrants of the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” The provocative order was repealed before it was put into effect, but the message was clear that Canada had an undercurrent of discrimination.
Moving to Sunnyside (part of Calgary) in 1919, John King worked as a Canadian Pacific Railway sleeping car porter and his wife, Stella, found employment as a seamstress. Over the years, four children were born to the hard-working couple, one of them a girl on Oct. 18, 1929: Violet Pauline King.
Completing high school, King knew she wanted to work in criminal law. She began a program in 1948 at the University of Alberta, one of three women in a class of 142 students. “To finance her studies, she taught piano lessons in Edmonton,” Lindsay Ruck said in The Canadian Encyclopedia.
A socially active undergrad, King was a member of the history and political discussion group called Blue Stocking Club and was selected class historian. As well, Ruck added, “she was vice-president of the students’ union and representative of the students’ union to the National Federation of University Students.”
At the university’s annual celebration of student achievements in 1952, King was one of four to receive an Executive “A” gold ring. Future Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed was one of the others. Earning a bachelor of arts degree, King proceeded to complete her LLB degree in 1954. Her goal of becoming a criminal lawyer turned into reality when she articled with Calgary criminal trial lawyer Edward J. McCormick, QC. She proved her extraordinary skill during that year when she was able to handle a heavy caseload of five murder trials.
Called to the Alberta Bar on June 2, 1954, Violet King was not only the first black female lawyer in the country, she was the first black lawyer in Canada. A confident young professional, King was unafraid to speak bluntly about prejudice in Canada, the discrimination faced by several races. At a sorority function in November 1955, she talked about the frustrations faced by many. “It is too bad that a Japanese, Chinese or coloured girl has to outshine others to secure a position.”
Activism ran in Violet King’s family. Her older brother, Theodore “Ted” King (1925-2001), was an accountant, and from 1958 to 1961 was the president of the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. When attempting to locate a visiting friend at a Calgary motel, Ted King was told over the phone by the owner that “they ‘don’t allow coloured people here,’” quoted Sarah E. Hamill in “Sex, Race, and Motel Guests: Another Look at King v Barclay,” (Osgood Hall Law Journal, Vol. 54, Issue 3, 2017). The advocate then tried to rent a room himself and was declined. Ted King took the hotel owner to court on grounds of racism.
After evidence and tacky innuendo were presented, the end of the King v Barclay case resulted in failure, due to a technicality. “The Alberta Legislature, however, swiftly removed the technicality that caused King to lose,” Hamill said. “This outcome suggests that … King achieved its purpose of drawing attention to, and winning legal protection from discrimination.”
Practising criminal law in Calgary for several years, Violet King moved to Ottawa for a job with the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. The tasks were wide ranging, and in her “roles in the department, she travelled throughout the country meeting leaders from different service and community organizations,” Ryerson University’s Criminal Justice Firsts said. In addition, King “gave speeches discussing racism and her hopes for gender and race equality.”
In 1963, the lawyer stepped out of the legal arena, leaving Canada for New Jersey for a post as executive director with the Newark YWCA/YMCA’s community branch. King’s “job focused on assisting black applicants in their employment searches,” according to University of Alberta’s Legal Pioneer, “and she was awarded the Special Mott Fellowship from the YMCA for her work.”
Newark represented more than work for the legal professional. Marrying Godfrey C. Henry in 1965, she gave birth to their only child — a daughter — the next year. Among other achievements, Godfrey Henry received a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University and was an author, professor and expert in law.
Transferring to Chicago in 1969, King was director of manpower, planning and staff development for the YMCA; seven years later, “she was appointed executive director of the National Council of YMCA’s Organizational Development Group,” said Ruck, making her once again a pioneer as first woman named to an executive post of the YMCA.
Developing cancer, Violet King died in New York City on March 30, 1982. Although she was only 52 years old at the time, during her lifetime she raised the bar on achievements for black women. Bursting through barriers and leaping obstacles, King left a lasting legacy in the fight against racial discrimination and for women’s rights.
Thanks in part to Violet King, it’s a great idea for any girl to become a lawyer if she chooses.