Heritage Calgary commemorates Black pioneering lawyer with plaque

History of the King family is largely unknown to Calgarians

Members of the University of Calgary's Black Law Students' Association, Heritage Calgary, the City of Calgary, and the Sunnyside community stand in front of a Heritage Calgary plaque memorializing Violet King, Alberta's first Black woman lawyer, at her historic family Home in Sunnyside on Friday, February 25, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Violet King was a truly remarkable Albertan.

Commemorating the largely unknown history of the King family—including her older brother Ted King—Heritage Calgary unveiled a plaque to their legacy of fighting systematic racism, and breaking gender and racial barriers, within Calgary’s living memory.

The plaque, which has a photo of Violet King and tells the story of the King family residence, was officially unveiled at their historic family home in Sunnyside on Friday.

Members of the University of Calgary Black Law Students’ Association, home owner Dr. Angela Pucci, Ward 7 Coun. Terry Wong, Heritage Calgary CEO Josh Traptow, along with many dignitaries and community members from Sunnyside were in attendance for the unveiling.

“The fact that someone this remarkable was here 50 years ago, and we don’t really talk about it or celebrate it, I think it’s a travesty,” said David Isilebo, co-president of the University of Calgary Black Law Students’ Association.

“So I’m really glad we’re starting a process to acknowledge the wonderful woman she is, celebrating her accomplishments.”

Through the eyes of Violet King

Lorna Cordeiro with the Hillhurst-Sunnyside Community Association said that it was fortunate that the King family home has survived. It, along with other historical buildings in the community, can teach Calgarians about their city’s history.

“We are fortunate that it survived, and it still stands along with some other historical buildings and streetscapes. Enough to allow us to see through the eyes of Violet King and provide context on what her daily life in our city would have been like,” she said.

Cordeiro talked about the prevalent racism the King family would have fought living in Sunnyside in the early 20th Century. From the racial discrimination preventing Black and Asian Canadians from using community pools, to the anti-Black race riot in 1940 where 200 soldiers from the Calgary Highlanders and Calgary civilians besieged a Black musician’s home before marching onto Chinatown.

The King family home is adorned with a plaque memorializing Violet King, Alberta’s first Black woman lawyer, in Sunnyside on Friday, February 25, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Violet King first Black female lawyer in Alberta

Violet King was born in Calgary and a graduate of Crescent Heights High School. She went on to be the first Black Canadian to obtain a law degree in Alberta. She was one of only three women at the Faculty of Law in 1948. King was the only woman to graduate.

She was also the first Black person to be admitted to the bar in the province in 1954. It would be a further nine years before a second Black Albertan, Lionel Jones, was admitted to the bar in 1963.

“She’s an exceptional, exceptional woman. I cannot stress that she came up in the time when Black people couldn’t be lawyers, and women couldn’t be lawyers. She was doubly disadvantaged and she still managed to succeed and get called to the bar and practice in Alberta,” said Isilebo.

King was, according to Ryerson University, one of the early second-wave feminists in Canada and was heavily involved in academic life. She also promoted the welfare and rights of Black Canadians. For her achievements, she was one of four members of her class at the University of Alberta to receive an “Executive A” gold ring. Future premier Peter Lougheed was another of those students.

“Just last week, I had the privilege to meet Miss King’s daughter at a conference,” said Isilebo.

“Meeting her last week, and then seeing the house here … to learn this is really living history in my city, it really touched me and I’m really glad we’re celebrating her and honouring her legacy.”

King’s history still speak to Isilebo

Isilebo said King’s story still speaks to him as a law student in 2022.

“It really does touch you because you realize how little of us there are,” he said.

“In my class, there are two black students, and then the year below us now there’s 10, and the year after there are 15. So we’re exploding numbers recently, but while we’re doing that, we shouldn’t be remiss to remember that it all started with Violet King living right here.”

Coun. Wong said that the unveiling of the plaque honouring King for her accomplishments was a good way to celebrate Black History Month in the city.

“We’ve had other notable Black contributors to Calgary—Virnetta Anderson, for example, Oliver Bowen who’s the master of our LRT system, in fact, and [Ezzrett] ‘Sugarfoot’ Anderson in football. There’s a lot of good contributors here, and we need to celebrate them all.”

King eventually moved to New Jersey, where in 1976, she became the first woman ever appointed to an executive position at the YMCA.

Legacy of ending the racist innkeeper loopholes in Alberta

Ted King, Violet’s older brother, served in the Canadian military during WW2. After the war, he worked as a porter for the Canadian National Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway, one of the few jobs available for Black Canadian men during the latter half of the 1940s.

King graduated from the University of Calgary in 1953 with a diploma in accounting. By the mid-1950s he became active with the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, becoming the president of the organization in 1958.

King’s family became the first Black family to move to the community of West Hillhurst, where his family was targeted by a neighbour attempting to use a racist petition to keep them out of the area. The petition did not receive a single signature.

An ardent advocate for Black Canadians, he used his community connections and support from prominent Calgarians to combat racial discrimination in the province. In 1960, King fought a case against Barclay’s Motel for racial discrimination. The case would eventually lose on a technicality, and then again on a technicality in 1961, during appeals at the Alberta Supreme Court.

King was chastised by the courts for having publicized the case through the media. Later in 1961 the Alberta Legislature closed loopholes in the Innkeepers Act that allowed Calgary motel owners to refuse service to Black Canadians.

Remnants of racism in the legal system

Isilebo said he was glad that things have changed, but that there are remnants of racism in the legal system.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we’ve come a long way that we’re now practicing black lawyers, we now have judges who are not overtly racist. But we still have the subtle cases, and we’re still working towards that,” said Isilebo.

“In my personal experience last year, I summered at the Crown’s office, and coming to the courthouse sometimes, I’d still get stopped and questioned. I’d be in a full suit, but I’d still be harassed if I was a lawyer or if I was just a client,” he said.

King would eventually move to B.C., forming his own real estate firm in the 1980s before retiring in the 1990s.

Historical status of Sunnyside home

The King Residence was added to the city’s inventory of evaluated historic resources in April of last year. The home in the community of Sunnyside was built in 1912. This was during the 1906 to 1913 development era that the city terms “Age of Optimism.”

The Heritage Calgary and the City of Calgary consider the home nationally significant for its long-time connection to the King family, and their connection to early Black settlers in the province.

Heritage Calgary CEO Josh Traptow said that further protection of the home under a heritage municipal resource bylaw could be done if the current owner of the home wanted to move in that direction.

Coun. Wong said more can be done.

“For me as a councillor, I do want to save the history, the heritage, and culture of what the city is all about,” he said.

“As you know, we do a lot of land development and bulldozing buildings and I’m trying to push back on that and hopefully save some of the character we’ve got.”

The plaque is now on display at 518 7 Avenue NW. More information is available on the City of Calgary’s inventory of evaluated historic resources website.

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