One Man's Place in History

Article excerpt

Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

The story of Wiley Griffon, one of Eugene's first black residents, gave a University of Oregon scholar the opportunity to detail local racial attitudes in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day- related presentation on Saturday.

Retired UO sociologist and local historian Douglas Card gave an illustrated talk on streetcar operator and janitor Griffon Saturday at the Lane County Historical Museum. Griffon is well known to local history buffs, at least in part because of a charming photo that has survived showing him and the mule-powered streetcar he once operated here.

In "Wiley Griffon: More Than a Mule-car Driver," Card made the point that historical evidence about Griffon shows as much about Eugene and Oregon's uneasy relationship to race as it does about the actual person in the photo.

Assisted by researcher Debbie Bitterlich, Card pored over U.S. Census material, mortuary records, court documents, newspaper accounts and other sources to come up with a portrait of Griffon's life.

"Most people know about Wiley Griffon the mule-car driver," Card said, showing the picture of Griffon standing with a small streetcar that ran along tracks from the train station in downtown Eugene south on Willamette Street and then east along 11th Avenue to the university.

But then he gave an example of the kind of racism that Griffon's story illustrates. In most early accounts of Eugene history, Griffon is simply called "Wiley."

"Never once did we give him the dignity of a last name," Card said.

The Oregon that Griffon encountered when he arrived here in 1890 had an ambiguous relationship to race. Although early legislators had passed laws forbidding slavery in the Oregon Territory (in 1843) and in the new state of Oregon (in 1859), there also were laws excluding free black people from living here - on penalty of whipping, though Card said there is no evidence that penalty was ever applied.

As a result, he said, the percentage of black people in Oregon's population remained vanishingly small - about a third of a percent - right up to World War II, when many blacks moved here to work in the shipyards. …