Honoring Trailblazer Barney Ford During Black History Month
During the month of February, we celebrate Black History Month—it’s a time to honor the achievements of African Americans and recognize their contributions throughout the history of the United States. Here in Colorado, one influential individual whose name you may not know is businessman and civil rights pioneer Barney Ford.
Ford escaped from slavery in South Carolina using the Underground Railroad and eventually became one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Denver. He’s been recognized for his many contributions to business and civic affairs in our state—including helping get Black Coloradans the right to vote. A significant player in Colorado history, he’s also the only African American honored with a stained-glass portrait at the capitol building in Denver.
Ford’s Early Years
Ford was born into slavery in Virginia on January 22, 1822—then grew up in South Carolina. He escaped as a young adult via the Underground Railroad to Chicago, where he adopted the middle and last names, Lancelot Ford. He married Julia Lyoni in 1849.
Ford worked as a barber and supported the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad before the young couple headed west to prospect for gold. To avoid the risk of traveling by land as an escaped slave, they traveled by boat around North and Central America.
Detours and Road Blocks
When passing through the port of Greytown, Nicaragua, Ford decided to settle there instead of continuing to his planned destination of California. He opened a hotel that catered to Americans and had great success—until the hotel was destroyed in 1854 when the town was bombarded in the ensuing civil war.
He became a steward on Lake Nicaragua and then opened another hotel, but eventually returned to Chicago to operate a livery business (that may have doubled as a stop on the Underground Railroad).
Again influenced by the prospect of gold, Ford headed to Colorado in 1860, where he landed in Breckenridge and discovered gold-rich deposits above the town. However, at the time Colorado law prohibited Black men from owning mining claims, so he and his party were run out of town by law enforcement.
Adversity and Perseverance
Ford moved his family to Denver and opened up a barbershop. In 1862 he had saved enough money to buy the building where the shop was housed for $673. He decided to open a restaurant too.
The building was destroyed in the Denver fire of 1863 that ruined most businesses in the city’s commercial district. But Ford was undeterred. He secured a loan from a bank, bought additional land on Blake Street, and constructed a larger, more fire-resistant brick building. It housed a barbershop in the basement, the People’s Restaurant on the main floor and a bar upstairs. Ford did so well that he paid off his bank loan in 90 days!
Oh, and Ford’s Blake Street building? It still stands today at 1514 Blake Street—known as the Barney L. Ford Building.
One of the Wealthiest Men in Denver
Through unwavering determination and grit—and despite rampant racism and lack of rights for Black citizens—Ford became a wealthy and successful man in a relatively short amount of time.
When the state legislature changed the law to prevent Blacks from voting, he left Denver for Chicago briefly in 1865. But he returned in 1867 when Congress passed legislation that prohibited US territories from denying suffrage based on race.
Ford built another restaurant on Blake Street close to the People’s Restaurant, and eventually got back into the hotel business. He built what was then considered the most upscale hotel in the city in 1873, the Inter-Ocean Hotel.
He also purchased the Sargent Hotel on Larimer Street and renamed it the Ford Hotel. Many at that time considered Ford the most prominent and respected Black businessman in Denver.
Helping Others Through Public Service
Ford’s success in business led to other ventures too, including endeavors he felt would make a difference in the lives of members of Denver’s Black community. He established adult education classes in 1866 and became the first Black Coloradan to serve on a federal grand jury.
He served in county conventions for the Republican Party and was the first Black man to be nominated to the Colorado Territorial legislature in 1873. He also worked for the admission of Colorado to the Union as a free state. In 1865, Ford helped successfully lobby the federal government for black voting rights in Colorado.
From Denver to Breckenridge… and Back
In 1880, Ford returned to where it all started for him in Colorado: the mountain town of Breckenridge.
A silver boom was just starting, and the seasoned entrepreneur took advantage. He started Ford’s Restaurant and Chop Stand and made profitable mining investments. He built a beautiful home for his family that still stands today at E. Washington Avenue (and is now a museum named for him).
After a decade in Breckenridge, Ford and his wife returned to Denver in 1890. He managed his business interests until his death on December 14, 1902.
A Statewide Legacy
Astute readers might recognize that Barney Ford’s name is everywhere in Colorado.
In Breckenridge, there are two landmarks: Barney Ford Hill and Ford Gulch. Ford’s former Breckenridge home was also restored as the Barney Ford Museum to honor and celebrate his life.
In 1973, Denver Public Schools named a new elementary school after him—it’s now called the Denver Center for International Studies at Ford Elementary School.
Ford was inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame posthumously in 1992. Visitors to the state capitol building can see a stained-glass window that honors him. Last year, the Colorado General Assembly proclaimed February 1, 2022, as Barney Ford Day.
The Definition of Resilient
Despite being born into slavery…despite economic booms and busts, fires, racism and other enormous challenges, Barney Ford made a name for himself. Not only was he an impressive businessman, he was an advocate for change who fought for universal suffrage and civil rights for Blacks.
During Black History Month, we celebrate the life and legacy of Barney Ford: entrepreneur, civil rights pioneer and leader. We hope you enjoyed this little history lesson about a groundbreaking statesman who helped shape our great state of Colorado for the better.