Violet King shattered both glass ceilings and racial barriers

Alumna first Black woman to practise law in Canada

Law Communications - 17 February 2021

Violet King, ‘53 LLB, the first Black graduate of the University of Alberta Faculty of Law, made her mark on the legal world when she was called to the provincial bar in 1954, becoming the first Black woman to practise law in Canada.

In another first, she also became the first Black lawyer admitted to the Law Society of Alberta.

“People told me it wasn’t a good idea for a girl to be a lawyer, particularly a coloured girl—so I went ahead,” said King in 1956 as a guest speaker at the Beta Sigma Phi pledge banquet in Calgary.

King pursued higher education at a time when law was not only a male-dominated field but also lacked racial diversity.

Her entry into the legal profession was also marked by a turning point in the civil rights movement in the United States. Two weeks before King was called to the bar, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

Canada’s human rights revolution was also taking place during King’s secondary and postsecondary schooling and into the early years of her career. It was not until 1966 that Alberta passed its Human Rights Act.

After King’s admission to the bar, it was another 10 years before the next Black lawyer, Lionel Locksley Jones, was admitted to the Law Society of Alberta.

A Strong Advocate For Women

When she graduated from U of A Law in 1953, King was the only woman in her class and had been only one of three women in the entire student body during her time in law school.

A 1954 article in the Winnipeg Tribune that announced King’s admission to the bar cites her as the second woman to practise law in Calgary.

“I don’t think women have become very generally accepted with favor in the legal field,” said King in a 1956 interview.

She later cited her gender as a hurdle to working in the profession: “I’ve been discriminated against, not because I’m colored, but because I’m a lawyer— a field some feel a woman shouldn’t be operating in.”

King was a fierce promoter of women’s rights, working with Alberta women’s groups to promote equal pay legislation.

“Many things remain to be done in the legal field to give women both the equality and protection to which they are entitled,” said King at a 1965 gathering for the Lethbridge Women’s University Club.

King was also deeply invested in cross-cultural education. In 1956, she left Alberta to pursue a job in Ottawa with the department of citizenship and immigration, as she had “always been extremely interested in inter-racial and inter-religious relations.”

King went on to have a successful career in the U.S., where she became the first woman to hold a senior management position with the American national YMCA organization.

King (then named Violet King Henry) died in New York City in 1982, at age 52.

Sixty-eight years after King graduated from the Faculty of Law, Peace Penzi, ‘22 JD, founded the Black Law Students Association, which hosted its first annual general meeting in November 2020, an accomplishment that is a direct legacy of King.