Violet King: The legal pioneer

    The descendant of black settlers, Violet King forged her own path as Canada’s first black female lawyer.

    By Katherine Thompson, Rachel K. Bailie and David Percy on February 15, 2017

    Editor’s Note – February 15, 2017: This story originally appeared on the UAlberta Law website on December 24, 2012. A condensed version of the original story was posted on February 10, 2017 to the University of Alberta’s Canada 150 website as part of the Nation Builders series. Rachel Bailie – co-author of the story – is also the author of a paper on Violet King – Minority of One: Violet King’s Entry to the Legal Profession – which was published in the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law. UAlberta Law's Professor Shannon O’Byrne and Sandra Petersson, executive director of the Alberta Law Reform Institute, supervised Ms. Bailie’s independent research project on Ms. King.

    There are many lists of firsts in Canadian law, but few can parallel the extraordinary achievements of Violet King (‘52 BA, ‘53 LLB), the first black person to graduate with a law degree in Alberta and be admitted to the Alberta Bar. King also has the distinction of being the first black female lawyer in Canada.

    Violet King was born and raised in Calgary. Her grandparents had moved to Keystone (now Breton), Alta., from Oklahoma in 1911, a result of the federal government’s campaign to attract farmers from the United States. Dismayed by the number of black farmers who entered the country, the government took steps to discourage black settlement in Canada. By 1912, it had effectively come to an end.

    King began her studies at the U of A in 1948. She graduated with a BA in 1952, and then entered law school, one of only three women in a student body of 142. During her time as a student, she was vice-president of the Students’ Union and class historian. Her many activities and contributions to student life were recognized in 1952, when she was one of only four students to receive an Executive "A" gold ring at Colour Night, the annual celebration of student contributions to the university. The stature of this award is demonstrated by the other 1952 recipients: Peter Lougheed, future premier of Alberta; Ivan Head, special adviser to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau; and Garth Fryett, a leading member of the Alberta bar and a prominent Edmonton legal practitioner.

    King received her law degree in 1953 and was called to the bar June 2, 1954, two weeks after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which declared separate schooling for blacks and whites unconstitutional.

    King practised criminal law and worked for the Department of Citizenship and Immigration in Ottawa. In 1963, she moved to the United States to take on the role of associate general secretary of the YW-YMCA in Newark, N.J. Her job focused on assisting black applicants in their employment searches, and she was awarded the Special Mott Fellowship from the YMCA for her work. In 1969, she moved to the Chicago YMCA to become the director of manpower, planning and staff development. In 1976, she became the first woman named to a senior management position with the American national YMCA organization.

    Violet King died of cancer in 1981, leaving a legacy her pioneering grandparents would undoubtedly be proud of.