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MailTribune.com
  • One of Eugene's pioneering black residents is honored

  • EUGENE — Inside the Hope Abbey Mausoleum at the Eugene Masonic Cemetery, Mark Harris strapped an acoustic guitar across his chest and asked about a dozen people: "How are your singing voices? Is the key of C OK?"
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  • EUGENE — Inside the Hope Abbey Mausoleum at the Eugene Masonic Cemetery, Mark Harris strapped an acoustic guitar across his chest and asked about a dozen people: "How are your singing voices? Is the key of C OK?"
    Harris, an instructor at Lane Community College, led the group single-file through the cemetery on a Friday evening to a new monument dedicated to Wiley Griffon, one of Eugene's first black residents.
    The group joined in as Harris strummed chords and sang a Yoruba tribal chant, "Ishe Oluwa," which translates to "The work of God will never be undone."
    The monument is next to Griffon's grave, and he is one of only two known black people buried in the historic cemetery. He died of flu-like symptoms in 1913, Harris said.
    Harris and his wife, Cheri Turpin, have worked for 15 years raising money to construct the 2-ton monument that resembles a headstone. The couple founded "I Too Am Eugene," a multicultural history project that teaches children and college students about Eugene's multicultural history. "We're pleased it's finally done," Turpin said. "It's been a long time."
    Public and private donors, including the Eugene Water & Electric Board and the Lane Education Service District, contributed to the project, which cost $4,000. The Black Student Union at LCC helped raise the bulk of the money, contributing $3,500, said 25-year-old Madeleine Afiafilelei Tofaeono-Galo, the group's vice president.
    She and fellow BSU member Jessie Ellison, 29, said that before working with Harris on the project, they didn't know much about Eugene's black history.
    "Even though I've lived here all along, I didn't know anything about Wiley or the local black history," Ellison said.
    A century after Griffon's death, little is still known of Eugene's early black history. Poorly kept records and newspaper accounts that rarely printed names of black people make trying to uncover the history difficult, Turpin said.
    Turpin and Harris have spent more than a decade researching Griffon after coming across his obituary in a Eugene newspaper. The obituary referred to him only as "Wiley." Turpin talked to a retired Lane Transit District bus driver who was familiar with Eugene's black history and learned his last name and obtained a photo of him standing next to a mule-drawn trolley car he operated.
    "The more we got into it, the more interesting it was," Turpin said. "It's a different history from the typical Eugene 'hippy, groovy' culture."
    Griffon was likely born in North or South Carolina in 1867 and came to Eugene in 1890 for unknown reasons, Harris said. He owned a home in what is now EWEB's parking lot despite Oregon's "exclusion laws" that prohibited permanent residency by people of color. Griffon died in his home at age 46.
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