What Precedes a Blue Moon? The House of Wisdom

Resonance from the Festival – March 2001

Photograph of Mr. Wisdom

In his golden years, Mr. Wisdom’s dapper appearance was far removed from the abuse and hardships he endured while enslaved in Kentucky. He came to Portland in 1883 on the second transcontinental train to stop in the city, and lived at the future McMenamins Blue Moon site until 1910. (Photo OHS).

Before the light of the McMenamins Blue Moon illuminated the intersection of NW 21st and Glisan, and even before the commercial building was constructed there in the 1910s, there stood proudly the home of Andrew and Sarah Johnston, later the House of Wisdom. Records have revealed a surprising, rich history of this property and these unheralded yet truly courageous and significant characters from Portland’s past. Who would have thought a neighborhood tavern marked such a prominent site?

The extraordinary story begins in 1861 and nearly 3,000 miles away. The setting is Kentucky during the Civil War. A 35-year-old enslaved woman named Ellen Lowe ran away from her Kentucky slave owner, distraught over the alarming news that her sister had been sold by her longtime Maryland farm to an enslaver in Georgia, the Deep South. Ellen headed west, shrouding her identity as a “runaway slave” by changing her name to Sarah.

Elsewhere in Kentucky, an enslaved 13-year-old boy named Joseph Anderson Wisdom was also uprooted. He had been living with a white family—Elijah and Mary Wisdom and their 12 children. Joseph was the illegitimate child of Elijah and Mary’s enslaved Black maid. Elijah, fearing he would lose a valuable “asset” if the South were to lose the war, made the decision to sell his son Joseph in 1861 for $400. Under his harsh new slave owner, Joseph and the others enslaved were worked hard and treated poorly. The enslaver refused to free them after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and even refused following General Lee’s surrender two years later. Finally, confronted by stiff fines and a jail sentence, he relented, releasing those he enslaved from bondage sometime in the late 1860s.

This 1882 report gave Portlanders the tragic news about the untimely death of the first Black man to live on the corner lot now occupied by the Blue Moon. (Oregon Daily Standard, Sept.3, 1882)

This 1882 report gave Portlanders the tragic news about the untimely death of the first Black man to live on the corner lot now occupied by the Blue Moon. (Oregon Daily Standard, Sept.3, 1882)

Over the next 15 years, Joe Wisdom continued to make a living from his labor, working at times picking cotton, hauling brick and milking cows. That Joe was strong in mind as well as body and spirit was illustrated by the fact that he became fluent in the native tongue of the German family that owned the dairy where he worked.

In the early 1880s, Joe was able to improve his prospects by securing a railroad job with the Pullman Company. In this position, he traveled throughout the country, and, when the first transcontinental rail service to Portland began in 1883, Joe was aboard the second train to pull into the city’s station. By 1883,

In 1928, scores of Portlanders—of all races—helped Joe Wisdom celebrate a milestone birthday. (The Oregonian, April 15, 1928)

In 1928, scores of Portlanders—of all races—helped Joe Wisdom celebrate a milestone birthday. (The Oregonian, April 15, 1928)

Sarah (formerly Ellen) Lowe had already been a resident of Portland for more than 15 years. She had married Andrew Johnston, a 40-year-old African American man hailing from Washington, D.C., and they, together with an all but invisible community of other Black residents, set about making a new life for themselves in Portland—and found themselves still enduring racially oppressive conditions.

The laws and politics of Oregon through the 1860s clearly reflected an anti-Black sentiment. Legislation severely restricted African Americans’ abilities to make contracts, buy property and marry anyone outside their race. From 1867 to 1873, Black students were banned from Portland’s public schools. A separate schoolhouse was established in the southern part of the city for African American children. Most ominous was a series of laws intended to remove Black people from Oregon and prevent others from moving in. The threat of expulsion was a constant and very real concern for Oregon’s Black residents through the 1860s.

The stark racism that Sarah and Andrew Johnston first faced upon moving to Portland in the mid-1860s is vividly reflected by the recollections made by A.E. Flowers, another Black pioneer, who first came to the city in 1865:

“At this time, colored people were not allowed to own property. They were not allowed to go into any kind of business and they were not allowed to vote. Every Negro had to pay a $10 [poll] tax. The colored people had no civil rights. It was very difficult to get jobs except as menials.”

These difficult conditions make the Johnstons’ experience in Portland all the more amazing. They initially lived at First and Ankeny, close to the waterfront in what is now called the Old Town neighborhood. This was the section where virtually all of the city’s fewer than 200 Black residents lived in 1870. Lodging with the Johnstons were two unrelated roomers, a 50-year-old African American boot black (shoe shiner) and a 10-year-old student of Portland’s segregated school.

Entrance of Blue Moon Tavern

The man in the moon at McMenamins Blue Moon Tavern is inspired by the bespectacled face of Joe Wisdom.

In 1870, Andrew took the remarkable step of acquiring a house lot at the present location of NW 20th and Glisan (less than a block’s distance from the present Blue Moon site). This was remarkable because few African Americans had the resources or the opportunity to purchase land at this early stage. Plus, this location was outside the parameters of the Black community’s downtown neighborhood. In fact, the Johnstons’ new parcel was well beyond the city core, up on Nob Hill, an area characterized by a checkerboard of uncut forest and pasture. The city’s street grid would not be extended through this section until the late 1880s. The Johnston’s closest neighbors in 1870 were sheep.

Prevailing racial intolerance may explain why Andrew Johnston signed over the deed to the 20th-and-Glisan property just months after its purchase. Records indicate he and Sarah continued to live on the site as tenants, suggesting that either Andrew could not afford the agreed-upon financing or that some authority deemed that an African American could not own real estate and he was forced to relinquish the property.

The city’s overt racism may also explain the untimely demise of a restaurant Andrew and another African American man opened on Front Street in 1873—one of the very few and earliest examples of an African American-run business in Portland prior to 1875. Likely, white customers were reluctant to patronize a Black-owned restaurant, and the existing Black patronage wasn’t sufficient to make it a profitable venture. Whatever the reason, the pioneering eatery closed after less than a year in business.

Despite these reverses, Sarah and Andrew Johnston continued to improve their situation. One steady source of income for them was the housekeeping position Sarah held with wealthy Portland capitalist and politician, Jonathan Bourne. In 1874, the Johnstons retained title to their home lot, but this time in Sarah’s name. Then, in 1879, they purchased for $450 the neighboring 100-by-100-foot corner lot at NW 21st and Glisan, where the Blue Moon stands today.

The couple moved to the future Blue Moon site in 1882, building a modest one-story home that fronted on Glisan Street. Sadly, just as Andrew and Sarah’s life together reached this new plateau, Andrew died from wounds sustained in a freak accident. That his obituary appeared in The Oregonian indicates that Andrew had achieved a degree of respect and familiarity from Portland’s white society.

In his absence, Sarah continued to do domestic work, and to increase her income, she had a second house built on the corner lot as a rental. It faced 21st Avenue. Here lived Charles Davidson, a German brewer employed at the Gambrinus Brewery, which was a flourishing neighborhood business housed in impressive quarters at the head of West Burnside.

A later, notable tenant of the 21st Avenue rental was Mrs. Emma K. Griffin. She was the widow of Adolphus D. Griffin, founder and publisher of Portland’s The New Age, Oregon’s first Black newspaper. In addition to his respected newspaper work, A.D. Griffin was noted for serving as vice president for the National Civil Rights Protective League of the U.S. and the National Negro Businessmen’s Association. Also, in 1901, he became the first African American to attend a Republican State Convention in Oregon. Griffin and his wife had lived at 2037 NW 21st until 1907. In that year, in a chain of events clouded by history, the paper’s run ended, A.D. Griffin reputedly moved to Lexington, Kentucky, and then passed away. From 1909 to 1911, his widow Emma lived in Sarah Johnston’s rental house.

Joe and Sarah Wisdom, detail of McMenamins Blue Moon painting by Olivia Behm

Joe and Sarah Wisdom, detail of McMenamins Blue Moon painting by Olivia Behm

Meanwhile, the widowed Sarah Johnston found a new companion in Joseph Wisdom, who had been enslaved in her old home state of Kentucky. As noted earlier, Wisdom had first visited Portland in 1883 as a Pullman car porter on the Northern Pacific. He continued his Pullman job into the mid-1890s, making regular runs between various cities including Portland. Around the time he and Sarah were married in 1895, Joe found a new railroad job on the Columbia River line running between Portland and Astoria. Finally, around 1900, Joe gave up his life on the rails and rooted himself in Portland, first as a janitor at the post office and then as assistant custodian at the U.S. Customs House, a position he retained for 25 years. Here in particular, Joe befriended many men of Portland’s hierarchy.

Joe and Sarah’s time together was relatively short, though seemingly content. They lived at NW 21st and Glisan, which now was part of a formally laid out and predominantly white neighborhood. At their home, Sarah and Joe entertained friends, Black and white, including postmaster William L. Chittenden, Portland department store czar Adolph Wolfe (with whom Joe conversed in German), and longtime Good Samaritan Hospital porter, Andrew “Doc” Spencer. Sarah passed away in 1910 at the age of 85 or 90.

Following Sarah’s death, Joe married Cinderella Gray and they moved to Northeast Portland. The Glisan Street property was sold in 1910, and not long after, the two houses built some 30 years later were knocked down to make room for the commercial building that stands today.

From slave-era Kentucky to 20th-century urban Oregon stretches a circuitous and tortuous route. Joe and Sarah’s journey is a testament to the fortitude, perseverance, and determination of the occupants of 21st and Glisan. Indeed, the House of Wisdom.

2 Comments

  1. Pam Calegari on June 24, 2023 at 12:49 pm

    This article warms my heart, thank you!!

  2. Shannon Longmire on November 22, 2023 at 6:12 pm

    I’m definitely going to check it out when I fly back to Portland

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