Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
Sharing Viola Desmond’s legacy with the world
Ever since Cedric Smiley heard the story of Viola Desmond — the Black businesswoman who challenged racial segregation in 1940s Nova Scotia by refusing to leave the whites-only section of a New Glasgow, N.S. movie theatre — the Antigonish resident knew he wanted to do something to continue her legacy.
“Upon hearing, I felt privy to a jewel of knowledge, the kind of knowledge that should be shared with the world. This is important,” says Smiley, who with his wife Syna (Reddick) Smiley, started Revolutionary Apparel in 2019.
The concept behind the business stemmed from wanting to further share Desmond’s story.
In 2018, Desmond became the first Canadian-born woman to appear alone on a Canadian bank note, the $10 bill, and Smiley’s idea was to sell T-shirts that come with an actual $10 bill featuring the image of the civil rights pioneer. They’ve designed a space on the front of the shirt, a sleeve that holds the bill, along with information on Desmond, which can be taken out when you want to wash the clothes.
“The shirt is truly ‘note’-worthy,” jokes Smiley as he explains the concept. “It’s the shirt it pays you to buy.”
More importantly, he says, by having the bill on the shirt, he hopes it prompts conversation and people to ask more about Desmond.
“The uniqueness and impact of Viola is what we think is so revolutionary,” says Smiley, who’s originally from the U.S. and married to an Antigonish native. “We found the new Viola Desmond $10 bill empowering and something that should be promoted.”
As an American, he hadn’t heard of Desmond, and was surprised to learn her story happened almost a decade before U.S. activist Rosa Parks (whom he met at one time) refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Smileys launched Revolutionary Apparel in 2019. They sold their initial run of T-shirts at the Antigonish Farmers’ Market and showcased their project at an event at the Halifax Airport. They received local media attention and were gaining traction.
Then the pandemic hit.
“When COVID came, we locked down and didn’t do anything,”
Just this year, the duo decided to restart the business.
They started reprinting T-shirts and added a few new products. They participated in the Juneteenth celebration on the Halifax waterfront and are looking forward to other upcoming events and having the T-shirts available for sale. Smiley says they are making some inroads about potential partnerships.
They are also working to tweak their online presence, including their Facebook page and revisiting their business model.
When Smiley had a chance to meet Wanda Robson, Viola Desmond’s sister, he told her about his idea. “She said, ‘I think that’s a great idea.’”
The T-shirts are available with two separate slogans, “Not just Black history, world history” and “Not just on the map, on the money.”
It’s about empowerment, says Smiley, whose retail background stretches back to his early 20s, when he operated his first T-shirt and novelty shop in Tempe, AZ. It’s a concept he feels should be embraced by Black people and white people alike, and a chance for more people to learn this history.
Why this story? What resonated so much about Viola Desmond?
“The fact it was a story that wasn’t told,” says Smiley. “It wasn’t known. It’s culturally impactful. Canada has this image of nice guys and all that good stuff, and it’s nice enough, but you’ve got your own issues.”
When Syna came up with the name, Revolutionary Apparel, it struck him as perfect. It’s revolutionary in many ways — in Desmond’s story, but also that a Black man from Phoenix, Arizona is doing this. He says if he can do this, anyone can.
Even if people don’t wear the money in the T-shirt, he hopes they will still tell someone the story.
“If we don’t embrace this $10 bill, it will come and go, like her legacy,” he says. “Let’s embrace this money.”
Smiley tells a story of a local teacher, a repeat customer, who has bought a few T-shirts to give to students to inspire them. “It put me in the frame of mind; I’m hitting the right market. I see this as a teaching tool.”
He wants to give back to the kids, he says.
The consciousness is also a crossover. “Everybody can get it.”