AfriGeneas Western Frontier Forum
Black Landmarks in the Un-Black West
FROM AFRICA TO THE AMERICAN WEST
Black Landmarks in the Un- Black West
I have a saying that an artifact, no matter how old it is, is only as valuable as the story behind it; the same is true for landmarks. Many of us know about the more renowned Black West landmarks like Nicodemus, Ks., Allensworth, Ca., and Boley, Ok. I wanted to present a few places of lesser fame that I have run into in my travels, places outside the mainstay of African-American culture like the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico, The Julian Hotel in Julian, California and the Blue Moon Tavern In Portland, Oregon. I'll start in the order listed.
1. The Saint James Hotel
Sometime in 1991 my wife and I were on vacation traveling north through New Mexico. The border between New Mexico and Colorado is high country and before we crossed the state line into Colorado we decided we were going to stop in a little town called Cimarron and have a local lunch. People at the visitor center directed us to an old historic hotel a couple of blocks away called the Saint James Hotel, a two story, flat roofed structure fitting more the eastern architecture of Baltimore or Washington, DC, rather than a western Cantina or Stage Coach Inn. Perhaps the reason for the hotel's eastern appearance was that Henry Lambert, former personal chef to Abraham Lincoln, established the saloon that eventually became the hotel in 1872. I don't remember what we had for lunch but afterwards my wife went into the gift store and the clerk encouraged us to take a tour with the history docent, a tall man with a big cowboy hat named Doc. Doc started with the standard spiel, telling us about Clay Allison, rancher and shootist who killed his share of slow-drawing holster huggers. He pointed to the bullet holes in the ceiling, all historically authentic, and the place where super-sized doors were used as a Wild West drive-thru for those thirsty patrons who wanted to order a drink from the saddle. After a while Doc became more candid. I remember him telling us how he was tired of tourists asking him if Abraham Lincoln slept there while he was trying to present western history. The discussion about Clay Allison, I found out was censored until he felt comfortable enough to trust a Black tourist to handle the whole story. Among Clay Allison’s many victims were several un-named Negroes, just part of his bragging rights, and once Doc became comfortable enough he continued to tell us more about Black history at the hotel. The big story with names was a shootout between Buffalo soldiers and Texas Cowboys in the saloon in May of 1876. Doc, a University Of New Mexico student, went to his office and brought out a book by Monroe Lee Billington and started to tell us how Buffalo soldiers were camped in the back lot of the hotel as a result of Colfax County range war. There were several incidents of conflict between the soldiers and the frontier gang known as the Texas Cowboys who made their livings shaking down saloons, brothels, and gambling houses. This was the same gang of Wyatt Earp/OK Corral fame but different members. The May 1876 incident was recorded in Billington's book on pages 66 and 67:
"...two enlisted men made an afternoon visit to Schwenk's saloon, where they became involved in an argument with Texas cowboys Gus Hefron, Henry Goodman, and David Crockett. At one point during the dispute Crockett held a pistol to the head of one of the soldiers and threatened to shoot."
The soldiers left Schwenk's saloon but against orders returned into town later that evening:
"...When Privates George Small, Anthony Harvey and James Hanson found Hefron and Crockett in Henry Lamberts bar at the St. James Hotel, the five men exchanged fifteen to twenty shots..."
Billington, Monroe Lee New Mexico's Buffalo Soldiers, 1866-1900 Univ. Press Colorado, 1991:
The result was the death of the three Ninth Cavalry soldiers with their killers briefly on the run until they returned to town one day six months later and a Sheriff's posse killed Crockett and captured Hefron. The story was compelling enough to me that I wrote an art piece about the incident called "The Buffalo Guns of St. James." I was fortunate that Doc was able to forego political correctness for a more complete historical perspective.
2. The Julian Hotel
When I lived in Southern California, my wife and I took a yearly fall loop east from the Riverside area into the desert, then south to the Salton Sea to camp. From the Salton Sea we would turn southwest across the Anza-Borrego desert until we reached the San Diego coastal mountains and a town called Julian. Julian is a small town in apple growing country and fall is apple season, just in time for fresh apple pie. I know most of the apple towns in California and which restaurants make the best pie, and that’s how I found the Julian Hotel. The entire historic section is predominately antique shops and little eateries, and of the old structures, the Julian Hotel seemed the largest, a two story, yellow wood building with a stairway leading to a broad, front porch. Inside we sat down to an 1800’s period designed table and asked for a menu. This menu had the history of the hotel included, and told of how it was built by a former slave and his wife named Albert and Margaret Robinson, the following excerpt discusses Black history in the Julian, California area in further detail:
Black Pioneers in San Diego, 1880 - 1920 by Gail Madyun and Larry Malone,
"Blacks in the early period preferred living in the rural areas which offered more economic advantages than life in the city. There were at least five farmers in the 1860s and 1870s: James Hamilton, James Brown, Jesse Tull, Thomas Jackson, and Fred Coleman. At one point the majority of blacks in the county were inhabitants of the Julian area. It was in Julian that blacks made their presence most felt. The Bon Ton Restaurant, owned by Ernest Morgan and Elvira Price, was the only business of its type operated by blacks. Issac Atkinson owned a bakery there before moving to San Diego. Fred Coleman discovered gold in a creek in Julian in 1869 which launched the county's first gold rush. A boom town sprang up near that spot called Coleman City. Mr. Coleman later constructed and operated toll roads between El Cajon and his boom town. But probably the most important black success story was that of Margaret and Albert Robinson, who in 1887 built, and for twenty-eight years owned and operated the Hotel Robinson. Today, located at 2032 Main Street, this charming structure is known as the Julian Hotel. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the "oldest continuously operated hotel in Southern California."3 "
After our meal I asked the clerk if I could keep the menu for the history info, which she approved. She advised me that the menu version was abbreviated and the more in-depth history of the Julian Hotel was in a frame on the front porch, which I took the time to read while my wife “antiqued,” inside. What I found most interesting about the area was that ex-Confederate soldiers who founded the town apparently were able to co-exist with freed ex-slaves with successful businesses. Also my research shows source discrepancies as to where Albert Robinson was a slave, with Sunset Magazine listing him as an ex-Missouri slave and Westways Magazine listing him as an ex-Georgia slave.
3. The Blue Moon Tavern
Northwest Portland is the more “yuppified” section of the city, a remnant of the old Nob Hill exclusive class from times gone by. 23rd St. and 21st. St. are two of the main shopping streets in the community with 23rd more of the wine and brie set and 21st more of the college kid, pizza and beer set. On the corner of 21st and Glisan is an open-air eatery, beer and pool tavern called The Blue Moon. The Blue Moon is a single story, 1950ish architecture corner business building with a large smiling Blue Moon face disk looking out over the intersection. We stopped in The Blue Moon because the open-air patio section looked like a good place to do lunch. On a trip to the restroom, I stopped to read an article behind an 8 by 10 picture frame which presented the Black history of the location, I took notes and left. Recently I decided to return to the tavern to specifically include that information in this article. I went back to the same location in the Tavern where I first saw the article and it was still hanging there. As I started to take notes an employee named Rico approached me and volunteered that the establishment had a book about it’s history and asked me if I wanted to see it? I said yes. Rico brought me the book, a glass of water and some paper and told me to take my time. Before the Blue Moon Tavern was built the location was the home to a couple of former slaves who gained recognition in what was then a predominately White section of Portland. The Book is titled “The Chronicle Of McMenamins, Blue Moon - A Pub Reader For Friends And Family.” It is actually an open anthology that accepts contributions from people with pertinent information so there is no publishing date. The two prime sources in this book that I will refer from are Tim Hills and his article “What Precedes A Blue Moon? - The House Of Wisdom” and early “Oregon Journal” articles which discuss the former Black owners of the Blue Moon lot.
The property was sold to African-Americans Andrew Johnston of Washington, D.C. and Sarah Ellen Lowe, who became known as Mr. and Mrs. Johnston. around 1879. They had already owned a lot about one block away but were unable to build a house on the lot for reasons which some historians speculate may have been based on race. However, apparently Andrew and Sarah Johnston’s White allies prevailed and a small house was built on their new lot by 1882. Sarah was a housekeeper for a wealthy capitalist and politician named Jonathan Bourne; Andrew worked independently running a restaurant at another location that failed. Their new life was interrupted by Andrew's death caused by a horse handling accident. Sarah continued with her life at the home, taking on as a tenant Emma K. Griffin, the widow of Adolphus B Griffin, founder of Oregon’s first Black newspaper and leading Black political activist. Sarah eventually married Joseph A Wisdom in 1895. Although Mr. Wisdom is a latecomer to Sarah’s life, his story is equally crucial to the history of the location. Included in the reference anthology is a narrative of Mr. Wisdom in his own words. He tells of how he was the son of a White master and a slave mother, and how his father chose to sell him for around 400 dollars rather than set him free. Mr. Wisdom also tells of how his new master was harsh and refused to free him even after slavery was illegal and that what ended his condition was the threats of fines and jail for his master. Joseph A Wisdom eventually worked for the railroad and that brought him to Portland. Joseph moved into the home of his new wife, Sarah, at the Blue Moon site and entertained people of all races such as postmaster William Chittendon, a hospital porter friend named Andrew “Doc” Spencer, and Department Store magnate Adolph Wolfe, whom Wisdom is recorded to have learned to converse with in German. Sarah died in 1910 and Wisdom sold the property. An art mural showing a chronology of eras is painted on a wall, depicting modern tattooed youth playing pool, back to "fifties" diner lifestyles and back a little further to a scene of an elderly Black couple sitting peacefully in a wicker couch on their front porch, looking out onto a blue moon surface. Once you know the story you understand the significance of the art.
It’s important for me to conclude this article with a couple of observations. The first observation is that all of these landmark stories give us a look at post-slavery relations in the West and how some Blacks interacted with other cultures after the Civil War. The other observation is that all of these locations are in predominately White communities, and the people who are serving as curators for these stories are also White. They present these stories proudly as part of their own collective histories and seemed to understand the importance of making a Black stranger aware of information that I most likely would have missed under the presumption of White community/White history. The Zuni people kept the story of Esteban and I've been on the Zuni Reservation attempting to get to the Hawikuh ruins where Esteban was captured with the cooperation of Zuni residents. The old Black pioneer town of Allensworth, Ca. exists in the midst of a small, predominately Hispanic town which still carries the name of it’s Black founder, Colonel Allensworth, I‘ve also been there several times when Ranger Phil Hill helped organize activities. Some histories of people of African descent in the West exist outside of African-American culture. I've learned to be prepared to look, learn and listen for those stories from what may seem to be unlikely sources.
Thanks for reading, Allen L. Lee