Wiley Griffon (sometimes spelled “Griffin”) poses with the mule-drawn streetcar that he drove from Willamette Street to the University of Oregon. Griffon was one of Eugene’s first Black residents. Photo courtesy Lane County History Museum.

Confronting the Racism of the Past 

The Lane County History Museum, working with the Oregon Black Pioneers, hopes to put Eugene’s history of racism and resistance to the forefront 

In the past few years, the conversation surrounding Oregon’s history with racism and discrimination has moved further into the cultural consciousness.

Exhibits such as Racing to Change confront this past head on, and tie it in with modern conversations and societal issues. The traveling exhibit was initially created by the Oregon Black Pioneers, Oregon’s only historical society dedicated to preserving and presenting the experiences of the state’s African American residents. Over the past few years the exhibit has traveled, and the host museums have added onto it, sourcing from their own records and archives. It opened locally in 2019 at the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History. With its current home in the Lane County History Museum as of April 2022, Eugene’s own complicated history with discrimination is put on display.

The LCHM’s lead curator, Marin Aurand, says she wanted to take the exhibit and really focus on the racism and resistance within Lane County throughout its history, from the early founding of the community to the contemporary.

Confronting the racism of the past is a way to acknowledge the legacy that still scars the community today.

Early immigration into Lane County in the 1860s was predominantly white Southerners, and “a lot of the ideas that would be the impetus for the Civil War came with people when they came here,” Aurand says. 

By the 1920s, Oregon had the highest Ku Klux Klan membership per capita in the U.S., and Eugene had the unfortunate distinction of being one of the largest gathering areas for the Klan in Oregon, Aurand says. The Klan held marches through downtown and burned crosses on Skinner Butte.

In 1922, the Salem Capital Journal published a list of all registered Klan members in Eugene, found during a raid in Los Angeles. In Eugene, however, the story was buried by the city’s paper, whose editor had Klan ties. 

As a way to confront this history, the Lane County History Museum now displays the list in its entirety — the first time it has been publicized since its original publication in the Salem newspaper. The names include such community leaders as J.H. Shelton, publisher of the Eugene Evening Guard, and C.A. Huntington, star of the 1917 University of Oregon football team that beat Penn in the third Rose Bowl, and later a UO coach.

“I think that the fact that it was every economic bracket involved in that is a really important thing to note,” Aurand says. “This wasn’t some sort of seedy underbelly of Eugene.”

The exhibit brings examples of historic racism — from Klan activity to sundown and exclusion laws — to the forefront alongside modern examples, such as the recent protests against police brutality, which disproportionately affects Black people. 

“These aren’t separate stories,” Aurand says. “These are a timeline of continuous bias and hatred that we need to be evaluating as a whole and then looking at ways that we can solve that generational wound.”

In contrast to the violence, Racing to Change also focuses on stories of Black resilience. The exhibit includes an oral history of the Mims family, who ran a boarding house for Black entertainers, musicians and travelers. During a time when African Americans were not allowed to stay in the segregated hotels, the Mims House was a safe haven. In a series of stories that visitors can listen to, Willie Mims details his experience growing up in Eugene as a part of one of the first Black families to settle.

Around the corner, a screen plays music videos from local artist M5 Vibe, showcasing resilience through art. A cut up selection of poetry on a magnetic wall allows visitors to rearrange the words and create their own act of resistance.

Aurand believes that, despite being a history museum, focusing on contemporary issues is important to examine the throughline that connects people today to the people that came before them.

“It’s very rare that there’s a story that doesn’t have contemporary implications,” Aurand says. “I think highlighting that makes history more alive. It makes you a part of a story that you didn’t necessarily know you were a part of.”

Since April, when the exhibit debuted, there has been some backlash from community members who believe that the exhibit focuses on a history that has been moved on from.

Aurand argues that looking at racism as a problem that has already been solved is one of the reasons why it hasn’t been solved. Rather, racism should be looked at as a generational wound that needs to be understood and continuously evaluated.

“I hope that we can start talking about racism not as a thing that happened, but as a thing that is happening in our community,” Aurand says. “There needs to be more energy and more effort into telling stories that we’ve previously tried to bury.”

In an effort to make the exhibit accessible to as many people as possible, the Lane County History Museum is offering free admission. Funded by donations, the museum will continue to offer free admission through April 1 when Racing to Change closes, although Aurand hopes that they’ll be able to keep museum exhibits free “for the rest of time.”

“I really hope that it makes people question how they view race, how they view racism, and how they view their own community,” Aurand says.

The Lane County History Museum is open 10 am to 6 pm Thursday through Sunday. It is located near the Lane Events Center at 740 W. 13th Avenue. Admission is free for all visitors through April.