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Black Teen’s Death Leads to Bus Route Change at Upscale Mall

February 5, 1996 GMT

CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (AP) _ The No. 6 bus from Buffalo’s inner city gets a route change today that will finally take it to one of the main entrances of an upscale suburban mall.

For years, the bus could get no closer to Walden Galleria than a stop on the far side of a seven-lane thoroughfare with no sidewalks. Then Cynthia Wiggins, a black teen-ager who worked in the mall’s food court, was run down and killed by a dump truck as she tried to cross the busy highway.

Soon after the 17-year-old’s death Jan. 2, local transit authorities released documents showing that mall operators wouldn’t allow any bus that ran through Buffalo’s mostly black neighborhoods to be routed across mall property.

And a white former shoe store owner charged mall owners with blatant efforts to discourage black shoppers.

Last week, the Pyramid Companies, owner of the Galleria, found itself facing residents’ accusations of racism, a probable lawsuit from Wiggins’ family and a civil rights investigation by New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco.

Mall officials insist their busing policy was not racially motivated.

``We don’t invest the millions of dollars that we do in order to exclude someone,″ Galleria General Manager James Soos said.

Wiggins, 17, wanted to become a doctor, her family said. The mother of an infant son, she was well-respected by co-workers at Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips.

``She was just a ray of sunshine because she always had a smile on her face,″ said her grandmother, Margaret Overall. ``She was always trying to be the best kid she could be.″

Ironically, Wiggins sometimes wondered aloud to her family why the No. 6 didn’t run on mall property. On Thursday, Dec. 14, she rode the No. 6 to work. The bus stop, always risky because it had no sidewalk, was treacherous with mounds of plowed snow from a recent storm. The truck hit the girl as she started across the highway. She never regained consciousness and died Jan. 2.

Black residents had previously complained about bus service to the mall, but reaction to Wiggins’ death was muted until the Jan. 28 release of an internal memo by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

The document said that when NFTA officials were negotiating service before the mall opened in 1989, executives from Syracuse-based Pyramid were receptive to buses from the mostly white suburbs. But when the No. 6 was mentioned, Pyramid insisted it be kept out of the parking lot, the memo said.

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Eventually, no public buses ran onto mall property.

Francis White recalls discussing his desire to lure black shoppers when he negotiated his White’s Shoe Store lease with Pyramid in 1988.

The former store owner, a white man, had had a large black clientele at his other stores and wanted to attract black customers again. But he says Pyramid executive Mark Congel told him he wanted to keep blacks out of the mall.

``He said, `You’ll never see an inner city bus on the mall premises, or near the mall,‴ White said. ``They just didn’t want the black community.″

Congel has denied making the statement and cites traffic congestion as the reason the No. 6 wasn’t allowed at the mall.

After release of the documents, the local National Association for the Advance of Colored People and Urban League, along with the 4,000-member Buffalo Teachers Federation, threatened to boycott Walden Galleria and two other malls that have no city bus service. All three shopping centers quickly agreed to put bus stops on their property.

Frank Mesiah, NAACP vice president, said the episode illustrates how racism is perpetuated in the North.

``In the South, there used to be people standing in the doorways of schools saying `You are not wanted here,‴ Mesiah said.

``Whereas in the North, what people did was to establish what appeared to be neutral policies but then had the same effect. That’s what happened here.″