Jul 23 2013

Blue MoonThe Blue Moon Tavern & Grill, on the corner of NW 21st and Glisan St. in NW Portland, has a recorded history going back more than 150 years. (Well, not the pub itself, which has been through several renditions, but the land on which it stands.)

But before the Blue Moon, there stood the House of Wisdom.

The House of Wisdom
Long before the Nob Hill District of NW Portland was a commercial area, even before streets were cut through, there stood on the current spot of the Blue Moon the home of Andrew and Sarah Johnston.

The Johnstons were former slaves who came to Oregon in the 1860s, hoping to make new lives for themselves. Sarah was 40 years old when she arrived in Portland in 1864, as a fugitive from Maryland who faced severe consequences if she were to be apprehended.

Sarah was born Ellen Lowe in 1824, just outside Washington, D.C. She, her sister and her brother were slaves, though at some point they were separated. Ellen's master was a county judge who owned a large farm, while her sister, Rachel Lowe, was the property of an influential lawyer and farm owner who owned more than 60 slaves by the time of the Civil War. In the early 1860s, Rachel was sold to an owner in Georgia, forcing her to leave her three children behind. Soon afterwards, Ellen ran away, perhaps out of grief upon learning of her sister's plight.

To shield her identity, Ellen changed her name to Sarah. At some point after fleeing the farm, she married a Washington, D.C., man named Andrew Johnston, with whom she may have made the journey across the U.S. The earliest accounts of her life in Portland refer to her as Sarah Frances Johnston.

Oregon politics at the time clearly reflected an anti-black sentiment, and legislation severely restricted African Americans' abilities to make contracts, buy property and marry anyone outside of their race. Despite these obstacles, the Johnstons took the remarkable step of acquiring a small lot - the future Blue Moon site - in 1879. The couple moved in three years later, placing them among the first black homeowners in Portland. You can see from this 1881 map that, at the time, Glisan St. didn't even continue past what is today's 20th Ave.

WisdomRecords show the couple struggled to retain ownership of the property, due to lingering anti-lack  sentiment, personal financial problems or both. But the Johnstons persevered.

Sadly, not long after the move to NW 21st, Andrew Johnston died in a horse handling accident. The widowed Sarah initially made ends meet by taking in laundry.

Then she took a prestigious position as a domestic in the Portland household of wealthy capitalist and budding politico (soon-to-be U.S. Senator) Jonathan Bourne. According to historic record, Bourne had known Sarah during his childhood in New Bedford, Mass., after she had escaped her owner in Maryland. 

WisdomAmong Bourne's gestures of respect and friendship was to provide Sarah with a sizable loan that likely was used to build a rental house on her NW 21st property.

Meanwhile, Sarah found a new companion in Joseph Wisdom, another former slave who had migrated to Portland.

A seasoned Northern Pacific Railway porter, Joe gave up his career on the road around the time he married Sarah in 1895, in favor of staying close to his new wife and home. He secured a custodial job at the U.S. Customs House in Portland, a position he would keep for 25 years. Wisdom:Here, he made friends with some of the city's most powerful businessmen. Before long the House of Wisdom on NW 21st  became a frequent gathering spot where friends­ - black and white - mingled freely.

In 1910, 86-year-old Sarah died at home. She had arrived here as a fugitive slave and departed as a landowner, landlord and friend to blacks and whites, wealthy and poor. In her will, she left a total of $6,000 to friends and family who were members of both races.

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