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The Life of a Newspaper Man

From Africa To The American West September 2005

The Life of a Newspaper Man

In light of the natural disasters that have struck the Gulf region of the U.S. this year, I think it appropriate that I write this article about a Louisiana native son that I have been researching for some time, a man named Adolphus D. Griffin. Born a farm boy at Kingston, Louisiana on June 11, 1868 to Tillman and Fannie Griffin, Adolphus grew to become a very public figure in the Northwest world of African-American politics and newspaper production. My personal interest in A.D. Griffin comes from questioning how he went from being a person of great public notoriety in the Northwest to a person who nearly becomes an enigmatic myth after he leaves his wife and Portland, Oregon in 1907. The story is one of missing pieces, but not just missing pieces of research, but missing pieces perhaps created by deliberate error of this man's life. Adolphus D. Griffin's wife, Emma K. Griffin, is listed as a widow in a Portland, Oregon census as early as 1910, however it is my belief that her estranged husband was still alive and died at Kansas City, Kansas, in the year of 1916. The historical mystery begins with Adolphus D. Griffin's departure from Portland. What did he do when he left? When and where did he die? What made Adolphus D. Griffin an interesting historical figure?

Many of you may remember my previous article, "Black Landmarks in the Un-Black West." I wrote a segment about a landmark in Portland, Oregon called the Blue Moon Tavern. I was trying to establish that the two primary African-American subjects who formerly owned the land where the tavern now stands, Sarah Johnston-Wisdom and Joseph Wisdom, kept good company and mentioned a tenant of her rental home, one Emma K. Griffin, the widow of Adolphus D. Griffin. After publishing that article I came across information in the book, “A Peculiar Paradise - a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940” by Elizabeth McLagan, which stated that Adolphus D. Griffin left Portland, Oregon for Louisville, Kentucky in 1907. My assumption that Emma K. Griffin was widowed as a result of her husband's death at Portland, Oregon, needed to be corrected. I contacted the famous Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky, the same historical society that holds the latest discovery notes of William Clark found in the attic of a Louisville home several years ago. Pen Bogert of the society was able to find no record of Adolphus D. Griffin, in Louisville, so I contacted Dr. Quintard Taylor Jr.

Dr Quintard Taylor Jr. stated he had no information about Adolphus D. Griffin but invited me to write a vignette of this person for his Website once I obtained the history. He also referred my query to Dr. Kim Mangun of the University of Oregon, a professor with a special interest in historic ethnic newspapers. Dr. Mangun suggested I search Kansas history, though not exactly sure where, and after some effort, I was able to find an A.D. Griffin who published an African-American newspaper called the “Kansas Elevator” in Kansas City, Kansas from February to June of 1916. I contacted and met the original source of my "Blue Moon" landmark information, historian Tim Hills, and discussed the finding. We had a very good meeting at the landmark and have been sharing and uncovering new information about Adolphus D and Emma K Griffin as I write. We both were able to recognize errors that we had made in our own searches. When Tim Hills wrote about Adolphus D. Griffin leaving for Kentucky, he wrote that Adolphus had ended up in Lexington rather than Louisville, as his source, Elizabeth McLagan had stated. When I asked the Filson Historical Society to search for Adolphus D. Griffin, I replaced the middle initial with a "B," but they somehow corrected the search to look for Adolphus "D" Griffin.

What made Adolphus D. Griffin an interesting historical figure? He was engaged in publishing or editing newspapers in Spokane, Washington and Portland, Oregon in the late 1800's and early 1900's that focused on the enfranchisement of African-Americans in politics and business. He was also a member the African-American wing of the fraternity of Masons known as the Prince Hall Masons, a prominent Republican and according to author Elizabeth McLagan, he became the first black man to attend a Republican state convention and was elected as a delegate twice. He was a shareholder in an African-American investment company called the Enterprise Investment Company, owned by eight African-American men in Portland in1901 with a portfolio worth $10,000 dollars. Adolphus D. Griffin is noted as being a self-educated man, but his editorials show that he did as good a job of self-attaining knowledge and literacy as the man the Republican Party used as a namesake, Abraham Lincoln. How and why did Adolphus D. Griffin get so lost historically after he left Portland in 1907?

Let's start with why he left Portland, Oregon and his wife in 1907; the answer is that no one knows for sure why. As of yet no one has uncovered any proof of domestic discourse between A.D. Griffin and his wife, it doesn't mean there was none, just that none has been found. A.D. Griffin was a Mason and his wife, Emma K. Griffin may have been active in the co-ed version of the Mason's called the Eastern Star, meaning they might have done social and political things together. His newspaper, "The New Age," is reported as doing well at the time of his departure and the investment company had made approximately $3,000 dollars.

On the other side of the coin, Historian Tim Hills was able to find an article which reflected some adversity in A.D. Griffins life regarding an altercation he had with a bartender and local police in 1906 over the bartender's refusal to sell him a beer because of his race. A.D. Griffin’s newspaper, “The New Age,” notes that in 1907, the year he leaves, there were more complaints of discrimination in Portland compared to ten years earlier. One theory I have is that he became frustrated with what he believed was stagnant politics and escalating discrimination. I believe he decided to leave Portland and gave his wife the old male ultimatum of "you go where I go," and she refused. Perhaps she had an established social circle that she did not want to leave, just a theory for now.

His writings called for a division of the African-American vote. He felt that the party of Lincoln was taking the African-American vote granted. He may have been too entrenched in Northwest African-American Republican politics to affect his ideas of becoming a Democrat in Oregon, something the Kansas A.D. Griffin apparently did. Newspaper publishing and editorials were dangerous business for anyone, but I recall evidence that Black newspaper publishers of the old days were at a higher risk of violence and lynching. A.D. Griffin published his sentiments that he thought lynchers should be punished. He also supported the rights of African-American strikebreakers at a time when labor unions often had race restriction. I can’t say he was ever at risk, though it seems he took very risky stands. His choice to leave and everything he did after Portland, Oregon might have been of his own design, plan and convenience, but persons with powerful and influential allies, as A.D. Griffin had, usually have equally powerful enemies. There may have been a measure of urgency in his departure.

The obituary of A.D. Griffin of Kansas City, Kansas credits him with starting an African-American newspaper in Los Angeles, "The Los Angeles Eagle" that no other historian can connect him with. Furthermore, the obituary I received from Debbie Greeson of the Kansas State Historical Society states that he was in Kansas five years before his passing, but doesn’t say where he came from, which gives him from 1907 to 1911 to have been in Kentucky or California. The obituary also doesn’t reveal a full first name, the Kansas Dept of Vital Records refuses to give information about a ninety-year-old death certificate, so I am perusing any public records in Kansas and Oregon that could link the Oregon A.D. Griffin with the Kansas A.D. Griffin.

I wanted to write this article about a Louisiana native son because many of its African-American hurricane survivors are being dispersed to regions in this country where they will most likely feel alienated. My best contemporary quote comes from an article written by Timothy Egan of The New York Times News Service and published in The Sunday Oregonian on September 11, 2005. In the article, someone interviews an evacuee airline passenger named Desiree Thompson, who tells of how they believed they were being evacuated to Texas when they were told in mid-flight that their destination was New Mexico, Thompson summed up the passengers response with this statement: “...New Mexico! Everyone said, ‘My God, they’re taking us to another country.’” Perhaps they should know that they are not the first African-Americans from Louisiana to go out into the great expanses of America and make new lives for themselves and for other people as well. From Kingston, Louisiana, Adolphus D. Griffin made a new life for himself in the West, we just don’t know the full details of what was most likely a very full and interesting life.

Thanks for reading, Allen L. Lee

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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