Violet King Henry biography. Explore the inspiring life and achievements of Violet King Henry, Canada’s first Black woman lawyer, a champion of civil rights.
Violet Pauline King Henry, born on October 18, 1929, and passing away on March 30, 1982, was a trailblazing figure in Canadian history. She holds the distinction of being the first Black woman to practice law in Canada, a significant milestone in the legal profession. Her journey was marked by numerous pioneering accomplishments, not only in the legal field but also in the realm of civil rights and social justice.
Her early life was marked by ambition and a determination to break barriers. She attended Crescent Heights High School, where she was known for her leadership qualities, serving as the president of the Girls Association during her senior year. Her yearbook even featured an unusual aspiration – a desire to study criminal law. She began her higher education journey at the University of Alberta in 1948, where she was actively involved in various student organizations, including the feminist Blue Stocking Club. King’s dedication to education led her to teach piano to finance her studies, showcasing her commitment to her goals.
During her time at the University of Alberta, Violet King Henry made history by becoming one of just three women in a class of 142 students pursuing a law degree. Her remarkable achievements include graduating with a law degree in 1953 and subsequently being admitted to the Alberta bar in 1954. These milestones were prominently covered in newspapers, including The Calgary Herald, The Albertan, and The Edmonton Journal, underscoring their historical significance in Canadian law.
King’s legacy is intrinsically tied to her family’s connection to African-American settlement in Alberta. Her father, John, was part of a group of African American farmers who migrated to Amber Valley, Alberta, in 1911, as they sought refuge from racist laws in the United States. King’s parents later moved to Calgary, where her father worked as a porter and her mother as a seamstress, both becoming prominent members of the local Black community.
Throughout her career, Violet King Henry demonstrated her commitment to justice, working as a criminal lawyer in Calgary, where she was articled with E.J. McCormick. Her legal work extended beyond her articles, as she took on cases ranging from murder to domestic violence. She notably appealed an adjournment for one of her clients and handled estate law cases.
In 1956, King transitioned to Ottawa, where she assumed a senior administrative role at Citizenship and Immigration Canada. She served during a pivotal time when Canada was making significant strides in eliminating racism and upholding the new Bill of Rights.
Her impact was not confined to Canadian borders. In 1963, Violet King Henry moved to the United States, where she held executive positions with the YW/YMCA in Newark, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois. Her work was instrumental in helping African Americans secure employment opportunities, earning her recognition and prominence in the field.
One of her most notable achievements was becoming the Executive Director of the national Council of YMCA’s Organizational Development Group in 1976. This appointment marked her as the first woman to hold a senior management position with the American national YMCA, a testament to her dedication and leadership.
In 1965, Violet King Henry married Godfrey C. Henry, a Trinidadian-American and Columbia University graduate. Their family grew when their daughter, Jo-Anne Henry, was born in 1966.
Tragically, Violet King Henry’s life was cut short when she passed away from cancer in New York City in 1982 at the age of 52. Her impact, however, continues to be felt, and her story was featured in the documentary “Secret Alberta: The Former Life of Amber Valley.”
In recognition of her lasting legacy, in 2021, the Federal Building Plaza in Alberta was officially renamed the “Violet King Henry Plaza” as a tribute to her contributions in dismantling systemic racial and gender barriers. Furthermore, in 2022, the University of Alberta established the “Violet King Henry Law School Award,” a scholarship worth $20,000 aimed at supporting Black students at the university’s Faculty of Law.
Violet King Henry’s life and career stand as a testament to her resilience in defying societal and workplace oppression for people of color. Her achievements serve as an enduring source of inspiration for future generations and a symbol of the progress that can be achieved through determination and unwavering dedication.