Frank B. Mesiah has seen lots of history during his 88 years in Buffalo – not all of it pretty.
As he leaves the Buffalo NAACP helm after 20 years, he recites plenty of stories: racial epithets, neighborhood redlining against potential black homeowners, his fourth-grade daughter receiving telephone threats and a police department and school system none too interested in hiring or even serving minorities.
"We had just bought a house on Humboldt Parkway and a big snowstorm hit," he recalled Thursday. "I’m out there shoveling my driveway when someone stopped me and said there were people down the street who needed their driveway shoveled, too. I’ve been through all that stuff."
Mesiah is stepping down from the organization’s presidency this month, though he will remain a member of its Executive Committee. But he leaves convinced the NAACP has accomplished much:
- Bringing federal lawsuits to force desegregation of the Buffalo Public Schools and the Buffalo Police Department, hinging in part on his research and testimony.
- Playing a key role in championing rights for women and other minorities too, including senior citizens, gays and lesbians.
- Fighting back against efforts to keep black homeowners out of various city neighborhoods.
- Generally acting as a watchdog against any form of discrimination.
A West Side native who graduated from Grover Cleveland High School, he later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from SUNY Buffalo State. At one time he worked both as a Buffalo police officer and Buffalo teacher to support his wife and three daughters, before closing out his career as a discrimination watchdog for the state Department of Labor.
Since his discharge from the Army in the 1950s, however, Mesiah has become mostly synonymous with civil rights efforts in Buffalo. The city has witnessed its share of racial problems, he said, even if often more subtle than outright.
"I had to bring in people to talk about Erie Community College," he said, "because at the campus out in Williamsville they taught chemistry. But at the City Campus they taught the ‘poetry of chemistry’ for black people. Plus there was no buses to even bring blacks to the North Campus."
For the most part, the efforts of Mesiah and his NAACP have proven successful. He remembers Buffalo schools that differed little from those in the South until the NAACP and other organizations challenged the system.
"Black kids went to one school and white kids to another school," he said. "And there were no black teachers.
"Now we have black superintendents," he added. "That’s what I feel good about."
Or, as a young police officer, Mesiah recalls, only whites rode in patrol cars; black officers walked beats in black neighborhoods. Those days are gone, too.
"In Buffalo like in other places, we’ve been the watchdog keeping an eye on what’s going on," he said.
But Mesiah believes the NAACP has also paved the way for others. Women could never gain appointments as high school principals, he pointed out; they could only lead elementary school. Women and other groups challenged the status quo because of what the NAACP had already accomplished.
"That all happened because of what blacks accomplished," he said. "Blacks took the dog bitings and the hoses turned on us. These other groups then realized what could be done."
Pastor Mark E. Blue of Lackawanna’s Second Baptist Church will succeed Mesiah, and the outgoing president says the organization can never give up its watchdog role. Buffalo is experiencing an upswing, he believes, but must make sure, for example, that new loft apartments and other housing do not literally leave minorities out in the cold.
"People are paying $1,300, $1,400 or $1,500 a month for these places, but what happens to the poor people who can’t pay those rents?" he asked, adding that gentrification in neighborhoods like the Fruit Belt adjacent to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus also pose problems for black people.
And discrimination, he added, no longer takes such overt forms as people yelling racial epithets.
"Now it’s the silent dog whistles," he said, "in a system where some people do not get a good education or corporations with no blacks working for them."
Still, he feels good about what has been accomplished.
"The greatest thing is being part of a system that created jobs for everyone," he said. "People started to look at themselves.
"All of this changed with civil rights activity," he added, "while I did my little schtick here in Buffalo."