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Violet King Henry

Summary

Violet Pauline King Henry
October 18, 1929 – March 30, 1982
Notable: Lawyer
Nationality: Canadian

Media

YouTube Video

Podcast Episode

Show Notes

Violet Pauline King was born on October 18, 1929, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada the first of John and Stella King’s four children. A decade earlier her parents had relocated from what is now Breton to the Hillhurst-Sunnyside area of Calgary. Her father supported the family as a sleeping car porter and her mother earned a living as a seamstress.

 

King’s paternal grandparents had left Oklahoma for Alberta in 1911. Their migration was motivated by a federal Canadian program that invited American farmers to relocate to Canada. Upon arriving, they found that the Canadian government had intended the invitation for White American farmers. In response to the unexpected arrival of Black immigrants, the Canadian government proposed a ban on Black immigration. The law set a maximum quota of 1,000 Black immigrants for 1912.

As a result of the ban, King’s environment was predominantly White. Yet, she still managed to thrive. King attended Crescent Heights High School where she became president of the Girl’s Association in her senior year. By that time she’d also set her sights on becoming a criminal lawyer.

 

Beginning college in 1948, King taught piano to help finance her studies and enrolled at the University of Alberta. She was the university’s only Black female student. And in her law class of 142 students, she was one of only three females.

King became actively involved with on-campus groups as well as initiatives in the broader community. She was a member of the Blue Stocking Club, a group that met to have conversations about history and current affairs. She represented the school’s student union as president and as its representative to the National Federation of Canadian University Students. Likely influenced by her father’s experiences, King worked to defend and enhance the rights of Black workers. She worked as treasurer for a local union for sleeping car porters.

During her final year of undergrad, King served as class historian and represented Alberta at an international conference in Ontario. King graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952. She was also awarded one of four rings given to students in recognition of their contributions to the school. A year later King obtained her law degree. She was the only woman in the group of law school graduates and became the first Black person to complete a law degree in Alberta.

King joined Edward J. McCormick, QC, a criminal trial law firm to complete her articling. She spent a year with the firm gaining real-world experience by working on five murder trials. King was admitted to the Alberta Bar on June 2, 1954, becoming the first Black lawyer in the province and Canada’s first Black female lawyer.

 

For several years, King continued to work in criminal law in Alberta. But she also remained actively involved in the community and spoke out against racism and gender discrimination. She accepted a position in Ottawa at the Federal Department of Citizenship and Immigration. Her time with the department allowed King to combine her passion for law and community activism. King traveled the country to meet with community leaders and organizations often speaking about issues of the day and her vision for an equitable future.

In 1963, King moved to America and settled in New Jersey where she became the executive director of the YMCA’s Newark Community Branch.  In her role, she helped Black people find employment. In 1969, she moved to Chicago where she served as director of planning and later director of manpower, planning, and staff development at the YMCA. In 1976, King became the first woman to hold an executive position within the YMCA in America when she became executive director of the National Council of the Organizational Development Group.

Unfortunately, Violet Pauline King Henry’s life of many firsts was cut short when she died at the age of 52 on March 30, 1982, from cancer. King was survived by her husband, Godfrey C. Henry whom she’d married in 1965, and their daughter Jo-Anne. King was inducted into the National YMCA Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2021,  Alberta’s Federal Building Plaza which looks onto the Alberta Legislature was renamed the Violet King Henry Plaza in her honor.

Sources

  1. “Black History Month Spotlight: Violet King.” 2024. MindForward.Org. February 12, 2024. https://mindforward.org/2024/02/12/black-history-month-spotlight-violet-king/.
  2. Gajadhar, Olivia. 2023. “Trailblazers in Canadian Legal History: Violet King.” Irwin Law. February 28, 2023. https://irwinlaw.com/trailblazers-in-canadian-legal-history-violet-king/.
  3. Ruck, Lindsay. 2023. “Violet King.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. October 18, 2023. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/violet-king.
  4. “Violet King Henry – The Story Behind Canada’s First Black Female Lawyer.” 2022. The Legal Archives Society of Alberta (LASA). Legal Archives of Alberta. February 2, 2022. https://legalarchives.ca/violet-king-henry-the-story-behind-canadas-first-black-female-lawyer/.
  5. “Violet King.” n.d. Toronto Metropolitan University. Accessed May 30, 2024. https://www.torontomu.ca/criminaljusticefirsts/courts/Violet-King/.

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