This year, Metrolinx commemorated Black History Month with a vibrant GO bus wrap and a mural honoring Salome Bey, Canada’s First Lady of the Blues. Both the wrap and mural were designed to spark a conversation and to help GO Transit customers learn more about Bey, what she’s done and what she represents. It did just that, and more. In this column, Nitish Bissonauth, a Bilingual Spokesperson and member of the Media Relations team, shares his experience helping with this public campaign and the impact it has had so far.
It started off as an idea.
A bus wrap and a mural to commemorate the achievements and contributions of Salome Bey, one of the countless Black Canadians who have had an impact on society.
Those who have formed an important part of the tapestry of this country.
I want to give you an example – a captured moment of silence – that dwells on Bey. But first, some context and an admission.
I’ll be honest, I had scant idea who Salome Bey was and I’m sure some of you didn’t either. Her name rang a bell, but not in any detail.
A quick Google search and you’ll find that Salome Bey was an incredibly talented artist. Her music has soul, it’s beautiful and if you like jazz, or just good music, you too will fall in love with her library.
But Bey was so much more than an award-winning singer-songwriter.
She was a trailblazer and an activist.
She settled in Toronto in the 1960s from New Jersey and would go on to become a prominent actress, a playwright and a director of musicals while breaking ground in Canada by creating theatre opportunities for Black artists at a time when no one else would.
As a person of colour, I know how important it is to be given a chance.
Having worked as a TV news reporter, and now in media relations for Metrolinx, I’ve had the privilege of working in a time when things are changing. We’re seeing more diversity and representation – but we didn’t get to this point overnight.
It’s thanks to people like Salome Bey, who gave a platform, and more importantly a chance to others. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been trying to break into any industry back then.
Bey died on Aug. 8, 2020, in Toronto, at 86 years old, but her legacy lives on.
It’s one thing to read about Bey’s impact, and it’s another to feel, and witness it firsthand.
When the wrapped GO bus was unveiled earlier this month, I helped set up media opportunities. While interviews were taking place and cameras were getting their shots, I witnessed a quiet interaction I’ll never forget.
Over at the adjacent bus bay, an elderly Black woman was approaching her GO bus and was about to get on when she paused and stopped.
Something had caught her eye.
She turned her head and noticed the wrapped bus on the other side. She approached the edge of the bay and admired it from a distance.
She stood there for about a minute, starring at Salome Bey’s image, now larger than life on a GO bus.
She nodded slowly, and she began to tear up – and so did I.
The bus driver gently went up to her to let her know it was time to board and off she went – but that experience, what I had just witnessed, stayed with me.
I can’t know what exactly was going through her mind or what she was feeling.
But I can certainly try to understand.
You see, it’s not every day you have someone who looks like Salome Bey on a bus wrap, and while it’s beautiful to see, it’s much more than just a nice piece of art.
It’s a symbol.
While producing the video above, I had the chance to speak to SATE and Tuku Matthews, Bey’s daughters.
Holding back tears, they told me it was incredible to see their mother honoured with a bus, the same mode of transportation Bey took to come to Toronto from New Jersey in the 1960s.
Bey planted her roots in Canada and with them, broke ground, creating her own movement.
But the significance of the bus is much, much deeper when you look at the history of Black people.
From December 5, 1955, to December 20, 1956 the Montgomery Bus Boycott took place – A civil rights protest during which African Americans refused to ride city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregated seating.
Four days prior to the boycott, Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested and fined for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man.
She was seated in the front row and when the white seats filled, the driver asked Parks and three others to vacate their seats. The other Black riders moved, but Parks didn’t.
The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ordered Montgomery to remove segregation from its bus system. This was met with resistance and even violence towards Black people.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a turning point.
It’s regarded as the earliest mass protest on behalf of civil rights in the United States, and the catalyst for the fight for fair treatment of African Americans.
One of the leaders of the boycott was Martin Luther King Jr., a pastor at the time who would go one to become a prominent leader of the American civil rights movement.
A bus is a symbol of activism.
To know that there was a time when Black people couldn’t sit in the seat of their choice to now seeing an inspirational figure like Salome Bey on a GO bus, this wrap has tremendous significance and importance.
What started off as an idea has now transformed into an amazing opportunity to reflect, educate, and inspire.
Through this bus, we’re creating more than just a transit connection, we’re creating a meaningful connection with our customers, our employees, and the communities we serve.
Over the next few months, I really hope you have a chance to see this beautiful GO bus on your travels and admire the fantastic artwork by Mark Stoddart. I hope it leaves a lasting impression as it did for me.
This year, the theme for Black History Month is ‘February and Forever’, and I will forever remember the elderly woman standing transfixed in front of a large GO bus – decorated in honour of a larger-than-life figure.
Want to see more of what GO Transit is doing for Black History Month? Just go here.
Story by Nitish Bissonauth, Metrolinx bilingual spokesperson and media relations advisor