Written by: Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer
Violet King Henry was one of the most significant figures in Alberta’s legal history. She became a lawyer at a time when it was very rare to find either a woman or a person of colour in the legal profession. When she entered the University of Alberta’s Law School in 1950, she was one of only three women in the program (a fourth had enrolled in the faculty by the time she graduated in 1953). She was the first Black Canadian to earn a law degree in Alberta and would become the first Black woman to practice law in Canada when she was called to the Alberta Bar in June 1954. It was the start of a remarkable and varied career that took King Henry across Canada and the United States.
Violet King Henry was born in Calgary on October 18, 1929. Her grandparents had arrived in Canada in 1911 as part of a large group of Black settlers fleeing racist violence and discrimination in Oklahoma. At that time, the Canadian government was aggressively promoting the Canadian Prairie West as an ideal field of settlement for land-hungry American farmers. The arrival of hundreds of Black settlers from Oklahoma starting in 1908, however, quickly exposed the racist foundations of Canada’s immigration policy. The Government of Canada considered multiple strategies to discourage Black immigration from the United States to Canada, including legislation to ban Black immigration from the United States altogether (the legislation was never passed into law). Despite this hostile reception, approximately 1,000 Black settlers came from the United States to Alberta between 1908 and 1911 and established vibrant communities such as Amber Valley and Keystone (now Breton).
King Henry’s parents, John and Stella King, moved from Keystone to Calgary in 1919. Stella worked as a seamstress while John worked as a sleeping car porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway, a job almost uniformly held by Black men in North America until the late 20th century. Violet was raised in Calgary’s Hillhurst-Sunnyside neighbourhood with her three siblings, Vern, Lucille and Ted. She graduated from Crescent Heights High School and in 1948 enrolled in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta, pursuing a degree in history. She then enrolled in the university’s Faculty of Law in 1950 and graduated with her degree in 1953. King Henry led an extremely busy life during her years at university – in addition to her academic studies, she financed her education by giving piano lessons and participated in multiple student organizations, including serving term as vice-president of the Student’s Union in 1951. The university recognized her many contributions to student life with the awarding of an Executive ‘A’ gold ring in 1952, one of four students (and the only woman) to be so honoured that year.
One of the few public expressions King Henry made about the challenges she faced as a Black woman in the legal profession came at a 1955 speech at a Beta Sigma Phi banquet in Calgary. In the speech, she reflected that it was, “too bad that a Japanese, Chinese or coloured girl has to outshine others to secure a position” and noted that several people had discouraged her from considering law as a career when she was younger. She also received support and guidance, however, particularly from Calgary lawyer Edward J. McCormick, QC, with whom King Henry articled after graduation in 1953. As Bailie notes, there was no unanimity on the issue of women in the legal profession and that, “institutional and professional attitudes towards women entering law ran the gamut from outright negativity and derision to welcoming attention and supportiveness.”
King Henry’s varied career took several turns. She practiced law in Calgary from 1954 to 1956 before leaving to pursue an opportunity with the Government of Canada. She joined Canadian Citizenship and Immigration and worked alongside community leaders to help new immigrants (and in particular, women from the Caribbean) to find work and adjust to life in Canada. Her career took another new path in 1963 when she left the civil service and moved to Newark, New Jersey, to take a position with the YWCA. She rose through the ranks of leadership in the organization and continued to be a trailblazer, becoming the first woman to work in senior management for the YWCA. She passed away from cancer in 1982.
In February 2021, the Government of Alberta recognized Violet King Henry’s achievements by renaming the plaza outside the Queen Elizabeth II Building in Edmonton in her honour. A provincial heritage marker was also installed at the plaza that details her life and accomplishments. In addition, Heritage Calgary, in conjunction with the University of Calgary’s Black Law Students Association, installed a commemorative plaque on her childhood home in Hillcrest-Sunnyside in February 2022.
Bailie, Rachel K. “Minority of One: Violet King’s Entry to the Legal Profession.” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 24, no. 2 (2012): 301-27.
Palmer, Howard and Tamara Palmer. “The Black Experience in Alberta.” In Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity, edited by Howard and Tamara Palmer, 365-93. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985.
Rojas, Carmen. “Honouring an Unparalleled Legacy.” Last modified 4 August 4, 2022.
Ruck, Lindsay. “Violet King.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published November 3, 2017; Last Edited January 24, 2019.