March 31, 2023
Ground-breaking Calgarian earns permanent home at law school
She has become a symbol of resiliency and determination for Black law students across Canada. She was the only woman in her graduating class at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law, the first Black person admitted to the Alberta Bar, and Canada’s first Black female lawyer. Violet King Henry was born and raised in Calgary, and while a student at Crescent Heights High School, declared that she would become a criminal lawyer.
To honour her courage and her contributions to the community and the legal profession, and to continue to inspire all law students who see it, a portrait of King Henry was unveiled in UCalgary Law's largest classroom on Thursday, March 30.
Honouring the legacy important for law students
For second-year law student Senait Yohannes, who attended the same high school as King Henry, finding a way to honour her legacy has been important. Along with fellow members of UCalgary Law’s Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA), Yohannes began working with Heritage Calgary in 2021 to recognize King Henry’s home in Sunnyside, and a plaque was installed in February 2022 formally recognizing the home as a cultural and historically significant site.
“The heritage plaque installation was one part of a larger mission to expose the public to Violet’s contributions to the legal profession in our city, as well as her story of defiance in crafting the exact life she wanted for herself despite society telling her she couldn’t,” says Yohannes, co-president of BLSA. “As a born and raised Calgarian, I grew up seeing heritage plaques around the city and that is where the idea came from to have one installed at her childhood home. Heritage Calgary and the current homeowner, Dr. Angela Pucci, were very excited to get this project going, and we celebrated that unveiling last year with the community of Sunnyside.”
The BLSA commissioned Edmonton-born Black artist Keon Courtney to create the rendition of King Henry, and the group was very intentional in how they wanted her portrayed: standing in front of a regal purple curtain, wearing her barristers’ gown, and smiling from ear to ear.
King Henry seen as a trailblazer
King Henry’s daughter Jo-Anne Henry, who was on hand for the portrait unveiling, spoke about her mother as a “trailblazer.”
"If you think about what it means to be a true trailblazer, it’s literally grabbing a machete and cutting a path through the wilderness. It’s physically exhausting, it’s mentally exhausting, you must have a real idea of where you’re going. It’s incredibly difficult, it’s daunting, and it’s the reason why ‘firsts’ are very hard to come by. My mom as a ‘trailblazer’ is so amazing to me, and I’m still profoundly amazed by her history,” said Henry, during her remarks at the event.
To celebrate King Henry’s legacy, and the 41st anniversary of her passing, the Calgary Tower was lit up violet on March 30.
“As the symbolic heart of Calgary, the Calgary Tower's display signified a recognition of Violet King Henry as a prominent individual in the city's history, deserving of remembrance,” says second-year law student Hameedah Baruwa, co-president of BLSA. “For Black law students at the University of Calgary who have long recognized King Henry's contributions, it was an affirmation of how she paved the way and a reminder of their potential despite existing barriers.”
Scholarship created in her legacy
In addition to the inspirational portrait, the BLSA’s VP Mentorship, second-year student Semhar Abraha, in her capacity as SU’s VP Academic, created the Violet King Engaged Scholar Award to recognize the unique barriers, challenges, victories, and lived experiences of BIPOC students at the University of Calgary. The SU will now offer this Award to the outstanding BIPOC students on our campus who continue Ms. King’s impressive legacy through their lived experiences, leadership, and community engagement.