Faculty of Law hosts an evening to celebrate alumna Violet King Henry

Special guest Jo-Anne Henry captivated the audience with stories about her late mother and reflections on her remarkable legacy

Carmen Rojas - 02 November 2022

In an inspiring presentation filled with laughter and a few tears, the University of Alberta Faculty of Law’s special guest speaker Jo-Anne Henry gave audience members a glimpse of Violet King Henry (‘53 LLB) through the eyes of her only daughter. 

King Henry’s background required little introduction at the event, which included an attentive audience already well versed with her story: she was the Faculty’s first Black graduate, the first Black woman to practise law in Canada and the first Black lawyer admitted to the Law Society of Alberta. After moving to Ottawa to work for the federal government, she went on to have a successful career in the United States – breaking down more barriers as an influential leader within the YMCA organization – before dying of cancer in 1982.

Henry traveled from her home in Washington, DC to speak at the Telus Centre on October 27, bringing her mother’s story to life while also sharing details of her own journey as a social justice advocate. 

Henry, who was 16 when her mother passed away, described the Violet she knew as someone who had a rebellious spirit and a deep sense of fairness, and who was full of joy despite the barriers she had to overcome.

In one example of her rebellious spirit, Henry shared the story of how her mother almost didn’t make it to law school. After attending an out-of-town wedding reception without permission, Violet’s father decided he would no longer pay her university tuition. When a woman from their church offered to fund her first year of law school, Henry held back tears as she explained that her mother proceeded to teach piano “non-stop” in order to pay the woman back every penny she had borrowed. 

Throughout her talk, Henry noted that her mother’s passing at a young age left her with many questions she never had the opportunity to ask her. 

For example, she spoke about wondering how it came to be that the caption in her mother’s grade 12 yearbook reads “Violet wants to be a criminal lawyer.” 

“How did she know this and what made her think she could achieve it?” Henry said. “There were no role models – there were no Black lawyers around, and she wasn’t necessarily even seeing women, of any race, in jobs like that.”

Henry later shared a formative experience from her own childhood, describing the independence her mother gave her at age 10 when they moved to New York City. After allowing Henry to choose her own school, Violet accompanied her on public transit every day on the hour-and-a-half commute.  Henry was eventually allowed to go on her own and even began exploring the city by hopping on different buses on her way home from school. 

“It was wonderful,” she said. “I developed a sense of confidence, and that was because of her.”

This confidence has helped Henry thrive on her own educational and professional journey, which includes a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, a master’s degree in executive leadership from Georgetown University, and a lengthy (and still going) career in social justice that began with roles in child welfare administration and a stint at the Office of Equity in the District of Columbia’s public school system. She is currently the director of strategic impact at the National League of Cities’ “Institute for Youth, Education & Families.”

Henry, who is now in a position where she is looked to as a role model herself, ended her presentation by answering questions from members of the the Black Law Students’ Association executive team. 

In response to a question about dealing with barriers Black women may face in their careers, Henry urged them to “keep doing what you believe.”

“Don’t take it personally – even when it’s personal – and always keep focused on the work you’re trying to achieve,” she said.  

The evening was also a celebration of the Faculty of Law’s new Violet King Henry Law School Award, which was announced earlier this year. Supported by Miller Thomson LLP, $20,000 will be given annually to a Black student based on academic standing, demonstrated leadership and commitment to the advancement of equity, diversity and inclusion. 

Sandra Hawes, KC (’91 BSc, ’96 LLB), Miller Thomson’s managing partner for Western Canada, was in attendance with several of her colleagues. She spoke at the start of the program, acknowledging Violet King Henry as “an absolute trailblazer”and expressing their pride at funding an award in her name. 

“Ultimately, Miller Thomson hopes this award will have an ongoing impact on representation and a sense of belonging,” she said, noting that the award aligns with the firm’s longstanding commitment to supporting diversity and inclusion. 

For Henry, visiting Edmonton for the first time since childhood was the culmination of a conversation with Dean Barbara Billingsley about establishing the award that started over a year ago. 

“I’m so honoured and humbled and excited that the University of Alberta law school and Miller Thomson have joined together in this way,” said Henry. “It’s profoundly meaningful that you’re doing this for my mom.”