Wiley Griffon (1867–1913) was the first African American employee at the University of Oregon. In the late 1890s he worked as a janitor at the men’s dormitory, Friendly Hall. Although, he was niether the first nor the only African American in Eugene, he was the first one mentioned by name as being a resident. Despite the exclusion laws in effect at the time, which forbade the presence of nonwhite American citizens in Oregon, Griffon and other minorities came to live in Eugene.
Griffon first arrived in the city in 1890. Prior to working at the university he served as the driver of the town’s first streetcar service—a single mule-powered car that ran on narrow-gauge tracks from the Southern Pacific Railway station to the university. According to the Eugene Morning Register, Griffon served numerous roles including driver, conductor, dispatcher, and “largely the motive power by persistently shoving along the ambling mule.” He took the job at the University of Oregon when the streetcar eventually shut down.
In addition to working at UO, he took on various other jobs, including working for “Grandma Munro at her famous eating house on the O.R. & N. line at Meacham,” serving as “a waiter on a dining car on the railroad,” and working “at many odd jobs in Eugene and at other points in the valley,” said the Eugene Daily Guard. He eventually owned a home overlooking the Millrace on the site of what is now Eugene Water and Electric Board’s employee parking lot. When he died in 1913, he was working at the Elks Club in Eugene.
Despite living in a time and place that was not welcoming to African Americans, evidence suggests he weathered those times positively and was mostly respected in return. Griffon is buried in the Eugene Masonic Cemetery, but his tombstone went missing at some point. However, when Eugene residents and students realized this unfortunate situation, funds were raised and donated to erect a historic monument and plaques at the Lane Transit District and Eugene Water and Electric Board offices. Major financial supporters and coordinators of this project included the Lane Community College Black Student Union and the “I Too, Am Eugene: A Multicultural History Project.”
Story by Jennifer O’Neal, University Historian and Archivist and Zach Bigalke, Student Research Assistant
O’Neal, Jennifer and Bigalke, Zach. “Untold Stories: Black History at the University of Oregon.” February 4, 2015, Unbound blog. https://blogs.uoregon.edu/scua/2015/02/04/untoldstoriesblackhistoryattheuniversityoforegon/