The Edna M. Griffin Memorial Bridge, located near E. Sixth Street in Des Moines, was officially dedicated May 10, 2004.
Guest speakers at the dedication ceremony included Lt. Governor Sally Pederson, Iowa Congressman Leonard Boswell, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and Iowa Transportation Commissioner Patricia Crawford. Also speaking were Longfellow Elementary School students and Griffin family members, daughters Phyllis and Linda, and son Stanley.
Mrs. Jenny Schiltz's fourth grade class at Longfellow Elementary School won the honor of opening the bridge when their entry - Edna M. Griffin Memorial Bridge - was chosen as the winning entry in the pedestrian bridge-naming contest sponsored by the Iowa DOT.
Edna M. Griffin (1909-Feb. 8, 2000) was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and raised in rural New Hampshire as the daughter of a dairy farm supervisor. She claimed to have learned to read by reading The Crisis, a NAACP publication. According to Griffin, she never experienced discrimination while in New Hampshire, despite being the only African-American family in a four-county area. She was exposed to discrimination against blacks when her family moved to Massachusetts.
Griffin graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. in 1933, where she earned a degree in English. Fisk University is now known for graduating many civil rights activists. At Fisk University, Griffin was involved in protesting Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. She was even arrested when she marched with striking teachers in a picket line.
She married Stanley Griffin, a doctor, and became a school teacher. They moved to Des Moines in 1947 and had three children, Phyllis, Linda and Stanley.
Civil Rights Movement
After moving to Des Moines, Griffin became involved in the Progressive Party, in particular its efforts to end discrimination against blacks.
Katz Drug Store in Des Moines,
of our supported platforms.
In the summer of 1948, John Bibbs, Leonard Hudson, and Edna Griffin and her one-year old daughter, Phyllis, took seats at the Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines. Griffin ordered an ice cream soda and when a young woman at the counter went to serve her, she was stopped and told the store did not “serve coloreds.” They group continued sitting at the counter and insisted on speaking with the manager. They were informed by store owner Maurice Katz that they would not be served in his store - the store was “not equipped to serve colored people.”
This was the first time Griffin had experienced such direct discrimination. Years later, she told a reporter for the Des Moines Register, “It was as if you were suddenly not a citizen, not a member of the community.”
Incensed, Edna and her two friends went to the Municipal Courthouse in Des Moines and filed criminal charges against Maurice Katz. They also filed a civil suit against Katz and the Katz Drug Store.
While waiting for the cases to go to trial, Griffin organized sit-ins and picketed every Saturday in front of the Katz Drug Store, sometimes with friends and other times alone. The local Black-owned and operated newspaper, The Bystander, also covered the sit-ins and picketing in the news. Griffin also circulated petitions throughout Iowa asking the governor to enforce Iowa’s Civil Rights law.
Eventually, the Polk County Attorney’s Office prosecuted Katz for the misdemeanor criminal charges under the 1884 Iowa Civil Rights Act, a statute making it a crime to discriminate in public accommodations. Katz was found guilty by a jury of six white women and fined $50. Katz appealed the conviction to the Iowa Supreme Court. In December 1949, the Iowa Supreme Court issued its decision upholding the conviction of Katz for violating the civil rights of Edna Griffin, John Bibbs and Leonard Hudson.
During the civil trial, Charles P. Howard and Henry T. McKnight, members of the local NAACP Legal Defense Fund/Legal Redress Committee, represented Edna. The support of attorneys through the NAACP was the only way for plaintiffs to be represented in civil rights suits. An all-white jury in that trial awarded Griffin $1 in damages.
Following this decision, lunch counters, soda fountains and restaurants in Des Moines began serving blacks. Griffin was later dubbed the “Rosa Parks of Iowa,” although she was always reluctant to claim any credit for her actions.
Other political activism
Griffin remained active in the civil rights movement through the 1950s and 1960s. She founded the Iowa Chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE).
She and her husband, a local prominent physician in Des Moines, raised money for approximately 40 individuals to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.
She also served as co-chair of Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
At age 75, Griffin went to Nebraska with a group of Quakers to demonstrate against nuclear arms. She sat in the middle of the highway to stop nuclear warheads from being shipped into the Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base. She was arrested.
Other honors and tributes
Griffin was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985 and Iowa African Americans’ Hall of Fame in 1998. She was presented the YWCA’s Mary Louise Smith Award, Community Service Award from Blacks in Government (1993), Urban Dreams’ Trailblazer Award (1998), and Cristine Wilson Medal for Equality and Justice (1998).
In 1998, on the 50th anniversary of her successful desegregation efforts, the Flynn Building located at 7th and Locust, which once housed Katz Drug store, was renamed the Edna Griffin Building. The Iowa Civil Rights Commission held a reunion at the site and placed a plaque on the building in honor of the participants in the sit-ins and picketing. This same year, Des Moines Mayor Preston Daniels declared May 15 as Edna Griffin Day.
A park located at 1613 13th Street and owned by the City of Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department is named the Edna Griffin Park in her honor.