As an African American, Wiley Griffon was defying the law when he moved from Texas to Eugene in 1891. At the time, all nonwhite U.S. citizens were still prohibited from residing in Oregon.
Racist laws notwithstanding, Griffon made a space for himself in the community and became a well-respected figure in town, operating the earliest streetcar service, a mule-powered trolley that ran on narrow-gauge tracks from the Southern Pacific depot to the University of Oregon campus. In later years, he became the university’s first Black employee and a homeowner in the city.
By 2017, however, Griffon’s legacy was in danger of disappearing into the mists of time. When it came to the attention of community members that his headstone in Eugene’s Masonic Cemetery had gone missing, funds were raised to erect a historic monument in his honor at the Lane Transit District offices. In recent years, additional murals and commemoratives have gone up around town to honor the life of the first-known Black Eugenian.
Any documentation of history is an act of preservation, but Griffon’s story illustrates its often tenuous nature when the narratives involved are those of marginalized individuals and communities.
A new exhibition created by the UO Libraries aims to promote better knowledge of Wiley Griffon and others who’ve made important contributions outside the limelight of the dominant culture. Drawing primarily from the library’s Special Collections and University Archives, "Our Impact through Images" foregrounds photography, documents, art and ephemera telling the often-untold stories and hidden histories of underrepresented communities at the UO.
“Many archives are notoriously lacking in representation of diverse voices and communities, so it is an absolute treasure that we have these materials and can share these stories today,” said Alicia Salaz, vice provost and university librarian. “The work of libraries and archives is more essential than ever for preserving a full and inclusive historic record for future generations.”
Created in an effort “to counterbalance the names, artwork and monuments from the dominant culture on the University of Oregon campus,” the panels will be exhibited in various locations throughout the academic year. Currently they can be viewed on the main floor of the Knight Library.
Mandi Garcia, creative content and strategic communication liaison with the library, said the exhibit focuses on the life stories of prominent Oregonians, past and present, to help frame the narratives of marginalized groups.
“By featuring leaders in science, public health, architecture, literature and government, these stories help to bring to light more experiences, struggles and triumphs of communities that have traditionally been left out of the narratives of state and UO history,” she said.
Creation of "Our Impact through Images" was supported by an IDEAL Framework Diversity Action Plan implementation grant through the Division of Equity and Inclusion.
"The very process of archiving is a political act because in choosing certain images over others archives shape our understanding of important current events," said Yvette Alex-Assensoh, vice president for equity and inclusion. "The images shared herein broaden our undestanding of important people and events in Oregon history."
Paula Gunn Allen (1939-2008)
A noted poet, scholar and chronicler of the Native American experience, Paula Gunn Allen was also an activist who advanced issues of women’s, gay and lesbian rights. Born Paula Marie Francis in Albuquerque, she grew up in Cubero, New Mexico. The family had multicultural heritage: Laguna Pueblo, Sioux and Scottish on her mother’s side; Lebanese on her father’s side.
At the UO, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English and an MFA in creative writing. Published in 1986, her book "The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Tradition" was considered a watershed in bringing to light the matrilineal culture of precolonial societies. Her many honors included a 1990 American Book Award and the Modern Language Association’s J. Hubbell Medal for American Literature, awarded in 1999.
Michi Yasui Ando (1920-2006)
In the spring of 1942, shortly after finishing her final exams, UO senior Michi Yasui applied to attend graduation with her class. But the United States was at war with Japan, and under internment policies, Japanese-American students were confined to their dorm rooms by a strict curfew.
After a clandestine, forced departure from Eugene, Yasui successfully reunited with her brother Shu in Denver. There she would earn her Master of Education and achieve her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher, but she had to wait 44 years before finally receiving her bachelor’s degree from the UO. Her participation in the 1986 commencement ceremony became an international news story.
Victor Atiyeh (1923-2014)
Born in Portland to immigrant parents, Victor George Atiyeh became the first Syrian American to be elected governor in the United States. Atiyeh attended the UO from 1941 to 1943 on a football scholarship. At the time of his father’s death in 1943, however, he left school to take over the family’s business. He would remain an active supporter of the university and the Ducks throughout his life, honored with the UO’s Pioneer Award and Distinguished Service Award.
Serving two terms as governor of Oregon, from 1979 to 1986, Atiyeh faced many challenging issues. He's credited with diversifying the state's economy, creating thousands of jobs. A lifelong Republican who believed in fiscal conservativism, he also would champion many progressive policies during his decades of political service, including the Oregon Food Share program, restoration of federal recognition to Oregon Tribes, and the first laws passed in the U.S. against hate crimes.
Ed Coleman (1932-2018)
Edwin Leon Coleman II earned his doctorate in English from the UO in 1971. That same year, he was hired as a full-time English instructor and is credited with offering the university’s first courses in Black literature. He would be instrumental in founding the ethnic studies curriculum.
For more than 40 years, he served as a steadfast friend and advocate for students, faculty and community members of color. Also an accomplished jazz musician, he was a passionate supporter of the arts in Lane County. Even after his retirement from the UO, Coleman remained an active adviser to groups like the Black Student Union and Black Student Task Force.
Abigail Scott Duniway (1834-1915)
Remembered as "the pioneer Woman Suffragist of the great Northwest,” Abigail Scott Duniway was born in Illinois, but she moved west with her family over the Oregon Trail in 1852. Still a teenager when she made the journey, she kept a journal that is now held in the UO Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives. She would go on to author 22 novels while also founding and editing The New Northwest, published in Portland from 1871 to 1887. Guided by the motto of "Free Speech, Free Press, Free People," the paper provided a vital platform for alternative voices to address the legal status of women, policies related to Native Americans and Chinese immigrants, the temperance movement, and other issues of the day.
Encouraged by her mentor, Susan B. Anthony, Duniway began speaking at national women’s suffrage conventions. Her lifetime of effort was finally rewarded in 1912, when Oregon became the seventh state to extend voting rights to women.
Wiley Griffon (1867–1913)
While he was not the first African American to live in the area, Wiley Griffon is the earliest Black resident of Eugene who can be identified by name. In defiance of the exclusion laws in effect at the time, forbidding the presence of nonwhite American citizens in Oregon, Griffon moved here from Texas in 1891. He eventually purchased a home overlooking the millrace, on the site of what is now the Eugene Water and Electric Board's employee parking lot.
Despite the racist letter of the law, Griffon was accepted by the community and became a well-recognized figure in town, operating its earliest streetcar service, a mule-powered trolley that ran on narrow-gauge tracks from the railway depot to the university campus. Some years later he became the first Black employee of the UO, working as a custodian in Friendly Hall.
A 1972 graduate of the University of Oregon’s architecture program, Johnpaul Jones is renowned for his transformative designs of zoo habitats and for bringing Indigenous architectural concepts into a modern perspective. In 2014, he became the first architect to be honored with the National Humanities Medal. Among his many acclaimed projects are the Smithsonian Institution’s American Indian Museum in Washington, D.C. (2004) and the Vancouver Land Bridge (2008), part of the Maya Lin Confluence Project.
Jones, who is of Cherokee and Choctaw heritage, also designed the Many Nations Longhouse as a center for Native American students and organizations on the UO campus.
Gabriela Martinez and Lynn Stephen
After working together on a 2009 museum exhibit, “Changing Demographics: The People of Lane County,” Stephen, a professor in the Department of Anthropology, and Martinez, a professor in the School of Journalism and Communication, developed a sequential Latinx Roots course to provide students with greater exposure to the racial and ethnic history of Oregon.
Students enrolled in the course produce oral histories and short documentary films profiling the stories of Latinx people in the state. Copies of all the videos, interview transcripts and supporting materials are placed in the UO Libraries’ permanent collection, ensuring that future generations always will be able to learn from them. Since the inaugural class in 2011, students have created 62 videos that have been viewed by more than 50,000 Oregonians.
When Lynn Pinckney received 55 percent of the votes cast in the 1985 election for president of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, she made history, becoming the first openly gay person to be elected president of a collegiate student body in the United States.
During her tenure in office with the ASUO, Pinckney led efforts to diversify the student population, to improve safety on campus for women, and to increase accessibility for people with physical disabilities. In addition, she advocated freezing tuition and disassociating UO funds from the Apartheid regime in South Africa.
Estella Ford Warner (1891-1974)
Trailblazing pediatrician Estella Ford Warner graduated from the University of Oregon in 1918. Appointed to the United States Public Health Services in 1932, Warner was tasked with improving public hygiene throughout the country. She was the first woman to serve with the agency, ultimately being named assistant surgeon general of the United States and helping improve global standards of pediatric and maternal care.
Also associated with the World Health Organization, she spent years increasing services for Native Americans in the desert Southwest and making significant inroads to advance sanitation and malaria control in Asia.
Learn more about each of these accomplished Oregonians in the exhibition "Our Impact through Images," on display now at the Knight Library.
—By Jason Stone, University Communications
—Photos courtesy Special Collections and University Archives, UO Libraries