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The Story of Violet Henry King

Dylan Robertson (2L)

The University of Alberta Faculty of Law has had some highly notable and important graduates in its century-long existence. Distinguished students such as Beverley McLachlin and Peter Lougheed have graduated from this Faculty and gone on to help shape Canada as we know it. However, one graduate who isn’t mentioned nearly as often as she should be is Violet King Henry, the first black woman to graduate from the Faculty of Law and the first black woman lawyer in Canada. In honour of Black History Month, Canons would like to take a look back at the extraordinary life, career, and accomplishments of one of the Faculty of Law’s most important graduates.

Ms King was born in 1929 in Calgary to a pair of first-generation immigrants from Oklahoma. Her family managed to immigrate to Canada in 1911 despite racist attitudes from both the public and the federal government which, despite launching a major campaign to attract American farmers to the West, limited African American immigration to less than 2,000 people that year. From an early age, it was clear that Ms King was incredibly smart, as she excelled in academics and became a talented piano player. She knew that she wanted to study law as early as high school, with her graduating yearbook caption stating that she wished to pursue a career as a criminal lawyer.

Ms King started her education at the University of Alberta in 1948. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952 and her LLB the following year, becoming the first black woman to graduate law school in Alberta. During her time as a student, she became highly involved in several important student groups, and ultimately served as the Vice-President of the University of Alberta Students’ Union and as the Union’s representative to the National Federation of Canadian University Students. Her graduation is even more notable when one considers that she was one of three female law students who entered the program, and the only one to graduate.

After articling with a criminal lawyer from Calgary by the name of Edward McCormick, Ms King was called to the Alberta Bar in 1954. By doing so, she became the first black female lawyer in Canada and the first black lawyer in Alberta. Her accomplishment was considered groundbreaking, and it received international attention from groups in Canada and the United States, with representatives from the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids – an important African American labour union that played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement – travelling to Calgary to honour her. To put her accomplishment in context, it took ten years for the Bar to admit its second black lawyer.

Ms King’s story does not stop with her graduation, as she ultimately had a career which would make nearly anyone jealous. After working at the criminal law firm of AM Harradence (now a former Alberta Court of Appeal judge) for a handful of years, she took a senior level position in Ottawa with the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. This move seemingly marked the end of her legal career, as she became a non-practicing member of the Law Society of Alberta in 1956.

In 1963, she left Canada for the United States to take on an executive role for the YMCA in Newark, through which she became notable for connecting unemployed African Americans with employment opportunities. Over the next few years, she would change cities and positions, ultimately becoming the first woman to be appointed to a senior executive position in the national American YMCA in 1976. During her time living in the United States, she married Godfrey Henry and gave birth to her only child, Jo-Anne Henry.

Despite battling racism and prejudices throughout her life, Ms King made few comments on racism that survive today. In 1955, while serving as a guest speaker at a sorority banquet in Calgary, she remarked that “it is too bad that a Japanese, Chinese, or coloured girl has to outshine others to secure a position” and expressed hope that one day society would place a greater focus on one’s ability instead of their race or gender.

Ms King passed away from cancer in 1982 at the age of 52, leaving behind an incredible legacy for law students both here in Alberta and across Canada. Through her hard work and dedication, she helped dismantle the colour and gender barriers of the legal profession in this province, setting the stage for many students after her to become successful in their own right. Although she remains relatively unknown today compared to several other noteworthy graduates of this law school, Ms King rightfully deserves to be recognized for her accomplishments and contributions to this school.