Violet King: A Calgary Trailblazer

Today we are sharing the history and legacy of Violet King, a Calgary born trailblazer with a unique YMCA connection. Her name is Violet King.

Violet King was born October 18, 1929, in Calgary, Alberta. A descendant of American settlers, King’s grandparents arrived in Keystone, AB (now known as Breton, AB) in 1911. King’s parents later moved to Calgary and settled into the Hillhurst – Sunnyside neighbourhood. Violet was one of four siblings and attended high school at Crescent Heights High School, knowing at a very young age that she wanted to be a criminal lawyer, as stated in her grade 12 yearbook.

(courtesy Glenbow Archives/NA-5600-7760a)

Violet King went on to study law at the University of Alberta in 1948. The Faculty of Law at the U of A was male-dominated, and King was one of only three women enrolled. Violet showed a keen interest in leadership and public relations and got heavily involved with various clubs and the student union. During her undergraduate, King’s contributions were recognized, and she was awarded an Executive “A” gold ring, a prestigious honour she shares with future Alberta Premier, Peter Lougheed (1971-1985).
Life in Alberta presented several challenges for the King family. When King’s grandparents arrived in Canada, the Canadian government proposed a Ban on Black American Immigration to Canada, therefore limiting Black immigrants in the Canadian Prairies to 1,000 people in 1912. Violet’s brother, Ted, was the president of the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People from 1958 to 1961, and in 1959 he launched a legal challenge against a Calgary hotel’s discriminatory policy, bringing to light the legal loopholes innkeepers exploit to deny Black patrons lodging. In a 1955 speech at a sorority banquet in Calgary, King expressed hope that in the future greater focus would be placed on a person’s ability and less on one’s race or gender, in a way, a formal declaration of her mission and purpose.

Violet King receiving recognition from the Calgary local of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (IBSCP), June 1954.

(courtesy Glenbow Archives/NA-5600-7757a)

Following her graduation, King was actively involved in supporting and promoting the rights of Black workers, using her knowledge of racial barriers faced by Black men and becoming treasurer of the labour union, the Calgary Brotherhood Council. Violet King was called to the Alberta Bar on June 2, 1954, becoming the first Black female lawyer to practise law in Canada. King practised law in Calgary for several years, working for a firm and later a judge of the Court of Appeal of Alberta.
King moved east to Ottawa where she worked with the federal department of Citizenship and Immigration, giving her the opportunity to travel the country and meet various leaders of different service and community associations. Throughout her career, she gave speeches discussing racism and her hopes for gender and race equity.
In 1963, King moved to the United States and settled in New Jersey to become the executive director of the Newark YMCA’s community branch, where she assisted Black applicants seek employment opportunities. In 1969, King moved to Chicago to become director of manpower, planning and staff development with the YMCA. In 1976, she was appointed executive director of the National Council of YMCA’s Organization Development Group, making her the first woman named to an executive position with the American national YMCA organization.
King passed away on March 30, 1982, from cancer at the age of 52. Her legacy as a trailblazer is recognized as being a strong advocate for women and racial equality, as demonstrated by her significant leadership qualities and contributions. Violet King shattered both glass ceilings and racial barriers throughout her life and her legacy is an example to us all for the work and community building we must do and continue to do for many generations to come.

On February 26, 2021, the Federal Building Plaza in Edmonton was renamed the Violet King Henry Plaza to honour her numerous contributions and legacy.

(courtesy Gabriel Mackinnon Lighting Design)

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