Violet King was a truly remarkable Albertan.
Commemorating the largely unsung history of the King family, including older brother Ted King, Heritage Calgary unveiled a plaque commemorating their legacy of fighting systematic racism and breaking down racial and gender barriers, in living memory of Calgary .
The plaque, which features a photo of Violet King and tells the story of the King family’s residence, was officially unveiled Friday at their historic family home in Sunnyside.
Members of the University of Calgary Black Law Students Association, home owner, Dr. Angela Pucci, Ward 7 Coun. Terry Wong, Josh Traptow, CEO of Heritage Calgary, and many dignitaries and members of the Sunnyside community were on hand for the unveiling.
“The fact that someone so remarkable was here 50 years ago, and we don’t really talk about it or celebrate it, I think is a travesty,” David Isilebo said. , Co-Chair of the University of Calgary Black Law Students Association. .
“So I’m really happy that we’re starting a process to recognize the wonderful woman that she is, celebrating her accomplishments.”
Through the eyes of Violet King
Lorna Cordeiro of the Hillhurst-Sunnyside Community Association said it was fortunate the King family home survived. It, along with other historic buildings in the community, can teach Calgarians about their city’s history.
“We’re lucky it survived, and it still stands together with other historic buildings and streetscapes. Enough to allow us to see through Violet King’s eyes and provide context for what would have been his daily life in our city,” she said.
Cordeiro spoke of the widespread racism the King family allegedly battled living in Sunnyside in the early 20th century. From racial discrimination preventing black and Asian Canadians from using community swimming pools, to the anti-black race riot in 1940 where 200 soldiers from the Calgary Highlanders and Calgary civilians besieged the home of a black musician before marching on Chinatown.
Violet King, first black lawyer in Alberta
Violet King was born in Calgary and graduated from Crescent Heights High School. She became the first black Canadian to earn a law degree in Alberta. She was one of only three women in law school in 1948. King was the only woman to graduate.
She was also the first black person to be called to the bar in the province in 1954. It would be another nine years before a second black Albertan, Lionel Jones, was called to the bar in 1963.
“She is an exceptional, exceptional woman. I can’t point out that she appeared at a time when black people couldn’t be lawyers and women couldn’t be lawyers. She was doubly disadvantaged and she still managed to pass and be called to the bar and practice in Alberta,” Isilebo said.
King was, according to Ryerson University, one of the first second-wave feminists in Canada and was heavily involved in university life. She also promoted the welfare and rights of Black Canadians. For her accomplishments, she was one of four members of her class at the University of Alberta to receive a gold “Executive A” ring. Future Prime Minister Peter Lougheed was another such student.
“Last week I had the privilege of meeting Miss King’s daughter at a conference,” Isilebo said.
“Meeting her last week and then seeing the house here…to learn that this really is the living history of my city, it really touched me and I’m really glad we’re celebrating her and honoring her legacy.”
King’s story still speaks to Isilebo
Isilebo said King’s story still spoke to him as a law student in 2022.
“It really touches you because you realize how few of us there are,” he said.
“In my class there’s two black students, then the year below us now there’s 10, and the year after that there’s 15. So we’re blowing the numbers recently, but while we do this, we shouldn’t be neglect to remember that it all started with Violet King living here.
Com. Wong said the unveiling of the plaque honoring King for his accomplishments was a nice way to celebrate Black History Month in the city.
“We’ve had other notable black contributors in Calgary – Virnetta Anderson, for example, Oliver Bowen who is the master of our LRT system, in fact, and [Ezzrett] ‘Sugarfoot’ Anderson in football. There are a lot of good contributors here, and we should all celebrate them.
King eventually moved to New Jersey, where in 1976 she became the first woman ever appointed to a leadership position at the YMCA.
Legacy of ending racist loopholes by innkeepers in Alberta
Ted King, Violet’s older brother, served in the Canadian Army during World War II. After the war, he worked as a porter for the Canadian National Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway, one of the few jobs available to black Canadian men during the second half of the 1940s.
King received a degree in accounting from the University of Calgary in 1953. In the mid-1950s he became active in the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Colored People, becoming president in 1958.
King’s family became the first black family to move to the community of West Hillhurst, where their family was targeted by a neighbor who attempted to use a racist petition to keep them out of the area. The petition did not receive a single signature.
A strong advocate for black Canadians, he used his community ties and the support of prominent Calgarians to fight racial discrimination in the province. In 1960 King fought a case against Barclay’s Motel for racial discrimination. The case will end up losing on a technical point, then again on a technical point in 1961, during appeals before the Supreme Court of Alberta.
King was reprimanded by the courts for publicizing the case in the media. Later in 1961, the Alberta Legislature closed loopholes in the Innkeepers Act that allowed Calgary motel owners to refuse to serve black Canadians.
Remnants of Racism in the Justice System
Isilebo said he is happy that things have changed, but that there are remnants of racism in the justice system.
“I would be remiss not to mention that we have come a long way that we now practice black lawyers, we now have judges who are not openly racist. But we still have subtle cases, and we are still working on them,” Isilebo said.
“In my personal experience last year, I spent the summer in the Crown office, and sometimes coming to the courthouse, I still got arrested and questioned. I would be in full suit, but I would still be harassed if I was a lawyer or just a client,” he said.
King would eventually move to British Columbia, starting his own real estate company in the 1980s before retiring in the 1990s.
Historic Status of Sunnyside House
The King Residence was added to the city’s assessed historic resource inventory in April of last year. Sunnyside Community House was built in 1912. It was during the period of development from 1906 to 1913 that the city refers to as the “Era of Optimism”.
Heritage Calgary and the City of Calgary consider the house to be of national significance because of its long-standing connection to the King family and its connection to the province’s first black settlers.
Heritage Calgary CEO Josh Traptow said further protection of the home under a heritage resources bylaw could be done if the home’s current owner wanted to go in that direction.
Com. Wong said more could be done.
“For me, as a councillor, I want to save the history, heritage and culture of what the city is,” he said.
“As you know we do a lot of land development and bulldozing and I’m trying to push that back and hopefully salvage some of the character that we have.”
The plaque is now on display at 518 7 Avenue NW. More information is available on the City of Calgary’s Assessed Historic Resource Inventory website.