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ACTIVIST'S SPIRIT STILL UNBOWED AT RETIREMENT

Frank Mesiah almost tiptoed away from his job with the state Labor Department where he has handled discrimination cases for the last 20 years.

"I kind of slipped out, telling very few people," he said. "I didn't want a lot of fanfare."

Mesiah -- former police officer, schoolteacher and museum director -- has been heard loud and clear in almost every civil rights battle of note in Western New York. He has been a fixture in local and state branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was a founder of the Council on Human Relations.

About 100 well-wishers -- a cross-section of the Buffalo community that included Mayor Masiello and friends made on the front line of social change -- honored Mesiah for his community service Thursday night at the Kensington Place restaurant.

"Mesiah's consistency has been in always doing what he thinks is right," said Masiello, who has known Mesiah since Masiello's political career began on the Common Council. He presented Mesiah and his wife, Ulrica, with Buffalo watches.

City Court Judge E. Jeannette Ogden said Mesiah was one of the people who wrote her a recommendation that allowed her to attend law school.

"Frank Mesiah is a wonderful person," she said. "He's articulate and really stands up for people. He may be retiring, but I am sure his other work is going to continue."

However, Mesiah's retirement from the Labor Department's Office of Affirmative Action comes with the bitter understanding that the current administration of Republican Gov. Pataki seems less interested in ferreting out discrimination against minorities and women in the workplace.

"With the new administration, there is a de-emphasis on civil rights," Mesiah said in a recent interview. "Discrimination monitoring at the Labor Department offices has been decreased through cutbacks in staff."

This is a reflection of a political backlash against affirmative action, he said, saying that victims of corporate downsizing and plant closings have been fed a line that minorities and women entering the labor market are to blame for their plight.

"The frustrations of many people, of many white males laid off . . . it's easy to find a scapegoat through blacks and women," Mesiah said. "It reduces the problem to an identifiable group that could be blamed for the problem."

While Mesiah is no longer working in a government job against discrimination, he is a long way from retiring from advocacy.

Mesiah, 68, his voice still ringing with conviction, told how he got started on the front lines. During the 1950s, he joined white neighbors in a fight against block-busting practices in the Humboldt Parkway neighborhood.

"White Realtors would pull up to a house and knock on the door pretending they were looking for someone else," he recalled. "Then they tell them blacks are moving in down the street. They would panic whites to sell their house for less than it was worth."

The practice was deterred through a letter-writing campaign.

The next challenge was a site for the former Woodlawn Junior High School, now Buffalo Traditional School, at Woodlawn and Masten avenues. Residents believed the school was being built to segregate black students to a site east of Main Street.

"The site choice showed intent on the part of the School Board to segregate," Mesiah said.

Although the battle was lost, Mesiah and others used the case to set the stage for the landmark federal lawsuit that helped force the desegregation of the city's public schools.

Through the Citizens Council on Human Relations -- a group of black and white residents concerned about discrimination against blacks -- Mesiah and others attacked other forms of local discrimination.

Newton and Anneliese Garber, Quakers who got involved with the council in 1963, recalled that Mesiah was able to make whites who had never met a black person feel comfortable.

"Frank was just great," Garber said. "He had no hang-ups about being in an interracial group, and at the same time he would come on strong with making clear what the problem is in the black community."

During those early struggles, Mesiah received bomb threats on the phone at his home and death threats directed at his family.

"Those were cowardly acts," he said. "What they did was give me energy. To have that many people upset at me, I thrived on that. I figured I must be doing something."

But discrimination -- more elusive and subtle -- still survives, Mesiah said. The signs may be gone, and the racial slurs no longer spoken, but the same old attitudes persist, he noted.

He cited the 1995 death of Cynthia N. Wiggins, 17, a single mother fatally injured trying to reach her job at the Walden Galleria after getting off an inner-city bus that was banned from the mall property at the time.

Her death shed light on a subtle form of discrimination that would have never been exposed had not the comments of a mall developer been revealed after the fatal accident.

Ms. Wiggins' family has filed a $150 million lawsuit against Pyramid Cos. of Syracuse, the mall's developer, which has denied any racial motivation.

"Now we have buses bringing people out to Galleria mall," Mesiah said. "But now you also have all the people who don't have cars, able to take advantage of the malls."

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