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February 10, 2023 • Rachael McDonald, EWEB Communications
You may have noticed a plaque along the sidewalk on East 4th Avenue near the entrance to the employee parking lot at EWEB’s former headquarters building. It commemorates Wiley Griffon. He’s not considered the first Black resident of Eugene. But he is the first one mentioned by name, according to scholars.
Griffon was born in 1867. Despite Oregon’s exclusion laws that prohibited nonwhite citizens in the state, Griffon moved here from Texas in 1890. He served as the driver of Eugene’s streetcar service, which was powered by a mule, and ran from the train station to the University of Oregon. Griffon was, “driver, conductor, dispatcher, and largely the motive power by persistently shoving along the ambling mule.”
After the mule-driven streetcar shut down, Griffon worked at the University of Oregon, where he was the first African American employee. He worked as a janitor at the Men’s dormitory, Friendly Hall on campus.
Griffon was known to have worked several other jobs including serving as a waiter on a railroad dining car. In 1909, he purchased a home on the riverfront on the site of what’s now the EWEB employee parking lot. He died in 1913 at age 46.
Griffon was buried in the Eugene Masonic Cemetery, but his tombstone went missing sometime over the years. Recently, Eugene residents and students raised money to erect a historic monument at his gravesite.
The plaque was dedicated at EWEB Headquarters in 2017. It was funded by EWEB and the Eugene-Springfield NAACP. EWEB General Manager Frank Lawson, Eugene City Councilor Greg Evans, and then-Executive Director of the Eugene-Springfield NAACP, Eric Richardson spoke at the event.
“I'm really excited to move this story from oral tradition into a confirmed solid history for our community,” Richardson said at that event. “It's important to remember to look back at where we've been and how things have changed so we can continue to move the ball forward.”
Richardson shared some additional comments this week as we remember Wiley Griffon for Black History Month:
“It is important for us to remember Wiley Griffon because he was an early Black American who came as part of the “immigrants” coming seeking work and a place to practice his own agency a common reality based in our understanding of the great Black migrations of the late 19th and early 20th century,” said Richardson. “The memorial gives us a sense of place and belonging in the bigger picture. The “modern” history of the Willamette Valley is relatively new and understanding this story gives us more context to historic times. Understanding the arc of justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King put it, is important as well an attempt to raise the awareness and consciousness of our space and struggles.”
Richardson said many of the African American laborers, like Griffon, who came to Oregon were skilled workers from the south who found the same old racism or worse here than what they were escaping from in the south.
Numerous community members and organizations, including the Lane County Historical Museum, have contributed to telling Wiley Griffon’s story. Much of the information for this article comes from the University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out the Strides for Social Justice app, which provides historic routes that you can walk, run, bike or wheelchair to learn about the people, places and events that shaped the experience of Black residents in Eugene.
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