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Ernest A. Griffin family papers

Identifier: Midwest-MS-Griffin Family

Scope and Content of the Collection

Family and professional records of the prominent Chicago funeral home owner and Civil War enthusiast Ernest Augusta Griffin.

The collection is divided into seven series: Family Papers, Funeral Home Papers, Civil War Papers, Photographs, Media, Artifacts, and Scrapbooks. Most of the collection consists of paper documents and photographs pertaining to Ernest A. Griffin and his immediate family- Alyce, Dawn, and Pearl. Although the documents and photographs are organized separately, some photographs remain in the first three series when doing so best preserved the context and original order of the materials.

The Family Papers series includes vital records (birth, death, marriage), educational and community materials, church records, personal correspondence, legal records, travel materials, and periodicals. Additionally, the series contains genealogical material on which the family tree in the accession file is based. Most of the materials consist of documents pertaining to the nuclear family (i.e. Ernest, Alyce, Ethel Dawn, Pearl, and Suzanne) during the latter half of the twentieth century, but the series also includes ancestors, descendants, family friends, colleagues, family pets, and possessions (houses, cars), with dates ranging from the late-nineteenth century through the early twenty-first century. Within the series, there are some duplicates of materials, especially of key family members or events. This series also contains some documents relating to family member funerals. Other family funeral related documents are located in the funeral home series.

The Funeral Home Papers series is divided into two subseries—Professional Papers and Funerals—that cover the Griffin family members’ professional activities and individual funerals conducted by the Griffin Funeral Home, respectively. The Professional Papers subseries includes screenplays from films produced by the Griffins, publicity materials surrounding high profile funerals and awards, drafts and copies of articles and speeches, newspaper clippings, and programs from professional events hosted and attended by members of the Griffin family. Most of the materials in Professional Papers subseries deal with the professional career of Ernest Griffin. Some materials also pertain to the careers of Dawn and Pearl Griffin as funeral directors and Alyce Griffin as the funeral home’s cosmetologist. The Funerals subseries contains documents relating to individual funerals conducted by the Griffin Funeral Home and consists mostly of funeral programs, death certificates, and documents pertaining to transportation, cremation, and internment arrangements. It also includes a few newspaper clippings and thank you notes from surviving family members. Of note are materials from the funerals of jazz musician Roscoe Beach, Negro League baseball All-Star Jimmie Crutchfield, U.S. Representative William L. Dawson (D-IL), Liberian Consul William H. Jones, pharmacist and golfer Norman LaHarry, the first black U.S. astronaut Robert Lawrence, Jr., Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and wife Clara Evans Muhammad, and Olympic star Jesse Owens. There are also documents relating to Griffin family members’ funerals.

The Civil War series consists of Civil War related documents collected by Ernest Griffin. There are several folders of correspondence between Ernest Griffin and other Civil War enthusiasts. Also included are his research materials on Camp Douglas and the 29th Colored Infantry, of which Charles Griffin (Ernest’s paternal grandfather) was a member. This series also contains newspaper clippings, Heritage Memorial Wall dedication invitations, pamphlets and brochures collected by the Griffins while traveling to battle sites and reenactments, photocopies of Charles Griffin’s military records, and general resource materials about the Civil War. There are also materials that address Ernest Griffin’s decision to fly the Confederate flag along with the Union flag and African American flag at the Heritage Memorial Wall and Ernest Griffin’s honorary membership into the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The Photographs series is the largest in the collection. Photographs are sorted into subseries that reflect the organization of the preceding document series: Family, Professional Activities, Funerals, and Civil War. Negatives and slides have been placed with the original photographs where identifiable. The Family photographs contain both photographs centered on individual people and photographs centered on specific events. Most of the photographs are of the nuclear family members (i.e. Ernest, Alyce, Ethel Dawn, Pearl, and Suzanne). A large portion of Family photographs are also of family trips and birthday celebrations. The Professional Activities photographs consist of photographs from conferences, dedications, graduations, ceremonies, interior and exterior photographs of the Griffin Funeral Home location at 3215 Michigan Avenue, and interior, exterior, and construction photographs of the Griffin Funeral Home location at 3232 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. There are also photographs of some funerals conducted by the Griffin Funeral Home, including some of the prominent ones mentioned above. The Civil War photographs consist of photographs of the Heritage Memorial Wall, Civil War reenactments, conferences, award ceremonies, and monument dedications.

The Audiovisual series contains film reels and cassette tapes (both video and audio) relating to family history, family events (marriages, funerals), funeral home business activities, prominent funerals (both domestic and abroad), community events, and Civil War activities. Similar to the Funeral Home series, prominent funeral materials include those of jazz musician Count Basie, Liberian Consul William H. Jones, pharmacist and golfer Norman LaHarry, the first black U.S. astronaut Robert Lawrence, Jr., Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Olympic star Jesse Owens, and Filipino Catholic Charities caseworker Severino Serra. The audio cassette tapes are mostly standard size but there are a few miniatures. The majority of the audio recordings involve Ernest Griffin narrating events and experiences. [archivist's note, 2023: Audiovisual recordings in this collection have been digitized and are available online. Access to the original audiovisual items is restricted.]

The Artifacts series contains an assortment of personal items from Ernest’s career, genealogical interests, and travels. Many items are Griffin Funeral Home promotional materials, including stickers, matches, and calculators. Of note are a set of embalming tools used by Ernest in the 1940s and the Griffin family Bible containing genealogical notes. The series also contains a few items relating to the Civil War.

The Scrapbooks series consists of several bound scrapbooks with photographs and a few disassembled scrapbooks with newspaper clippings. These scrapbooks include content relating to individual family members, local institutions and figures, funerals, memorials, community events, business history, and Ernest’s Civil War related activities.


  • Creation: 1862-2007
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1910-1995



Materials are in English.


The Ernest A. Griffin family papers are open for research in the Special Collections Reading Room; 1 box at a time (Priority III).

Audiovisual recordings in this collection have been digitized and are available online. Access to the original audiovisual items is restricted.

Ownership and Literary Rights

The Ernest A. Griffin family papers are the physical property of the Newberry Library. Copyright may belong to the authors or their legal heirs or assigns. For permission to publish or reproduce any materials from this collection, contact the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections at

Biography of Ernest A. Griffin

Ernest Augusta Griffin was born February 20, 1912, in Chicago, IL to Stephen A. Griffin and Katherine Amanda Isabelle Griffin (née Brown). Ernest’s father was born in Dresden, Ontario, Canada, but moved to Chicago at a young age. There, he met Ernest’s mother, who moved from her birthplace in Mississippi. Ernest was one of six children, though only four lived into adulthood—Ida Mae, Helen Vernell, Charles Stephen and Ernest, himself.

Due to a settlement from an untimely car accident, Ernest was able to attend the Worsham College of Mortuary Science. Upon graduation, he began work as a funeral director under his father at Bell Funeral Home and Auto Company in 1933 and eventually assumed control over the funeral home after it was renamed Griffin Funeral Home in 1947. He continued working as a funeral director for the remainder of his life, relocating the funeral home from 3215 Michigan Avenue to 3232 Calumet (later, Martin Luther King, Jr.) Drive in 1969. His work included both domestic and international funerals, and his most notable funerals included ones for first black U.S. astronaut Robert Lawrence, Jr., Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Liberian Consul William H. Jones, Olympic star Jesse Owens, and Filipino Catholic charities caseworker Severino Serra.

In addition to his career as a funeral director, Ernest also developed an interest in the American Civil War during the later years of his life. This interest was sparked by two discoveries: that his grandfather, Charles Theodore Griffin, had participated in the Civil War as part of the 29th Colored Regiment Company B and that the Griffin Funeral Home stood on what was formerly Camp Douglas, a Union training ground and Confederate prisoner of war camp during the Civil War. Ernest not only gathered a number of materials on his grandfather and the Civil War in general but also participated in reenactments and Civil War societies around the country. He also erected a memorial on the grounds of the Funeral Home in 1991, Heritage Memorial Wall, to honor fallen Civil War soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

Ernest’s first daughter Ethel Dawn Griffin was born on April 4, 1945, in Chicago to Ernest and Ethel Mae Griffin (née Smith), but due to complications, Ethel Mae did not survive the delivery. Ernest remarried to Alyce Louise Carter on August 4, 1946, and they legally adopted Dawn. Alyce was born May 3, 1918 to Harold J. Carter and Matilda Louise Carter (née Roberts), who resided in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. After attending Howard University, Alyce went on to study at the Dickinson School of Law at Pennsylvania State University. Later, she moved to Chicago and worked as the personnel director of the Oppenheimer Casing Company. In Chicago, she met Ernest and they were married shortly thereafter. Ernest and Alyce had their second daughter Pearl Louise Griffin on July 5, 1950, in Chicago.

The Griffin Funeral Home was a family run business. Alyce worked as a funeral cosmetologist, and both Dawn and Pearl followed in Ernest’s footsteps as funeral directors. Dawn graduated from Wendell Phillips High School in 1962 and from Worsham College of Mortuary Science in 1966. She married James Kenneth O’Neal on September 16, 1989, and together, they worked at the Griffin Funeral Home until its closing. Pearl graduated from the University High School at The University of Chicago in 1968, attended Wisconsin State University, and graduated from the Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center School of Nursing in 1974 before becoming a funeral director. She had one daughter, Suzanne Michelle, on November 19, 1975. Pearl, like Dawn, worked with the Griffin Funeral Home until its closing. After Ernest’s death on December 14, 1995, Alyce, Dawn, and Pearl continued to run the Griffin Funeral Home for another 12 years, finally closing it in 2007. In 2012, Dawn donated this collection in her father’s memory.


25 Linear Feet (46 boxes and 1 oversize box)

39 items (7 open reels, 26 cassettes, 1 wire recording (not digitized), 5 VHS tapes)


Papers of family historian Ernest A. Griffin, proprietor of the Griffin Funeral Home on Chicago's south side, including family documents, photographs, audio/visual material, genealogical notes, and materials relating to the history of Camp Douglas (on which the funeral home stood) and Charles H. Griffin who served in a colored regiment during the Civil War. Also includes documentation of the funerals of prominent African Americans.


Papers are organized in the following series:

Series 1: Family Papers, 1887-2008, Bulk, 1910-1995
Boxes 1-7
Series 2: Funeral Home Papers, 1920-2008
Boxes 8-16
Series 3: Civil War Papers, 1862-1995, Bulk, 1959-1995
Boxes 17-19
Series 4: Photographs, 1891-2008
Boxes 20-37
Series 5: Audiovisual, 1953-1998
Audiovisual boxes (restricted)
Series 6: Artifacts, 1862-2007
Boxes 39-42
Series 7: Scrapbooks, 1891-1993
Boxes 43-47
Oversize materials, 1923-1975
Box 48

Conditions Governing Audiovisual Access

Audiovisual recordings in this collection have not been digitized and are unavailable for use at this time.

Collection Stack Location

1 38 2-3; 1 30 1; 4a flat files


Gift of Ethel Dawn Griffin-O’Neal, Aug. 16, 2012.

Processed by

Ashley Finigan and Eileen Truong, 2014; Alex Haskins and Emily Masghati, 2015.

Inventory of the Ernest A. Griffin family papers, 1862-2007, bulk 1910-1995
Alex Haskins and Emily Masghati
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2023-01-17: Audiovisual materials have been permanently removed from the collection for preservation. Access to the original audiovisual items is restricted.

Repository Details

Part of the The Newberry Library - Modern Manuscripts and Archives Repository

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States