Barney L. Ford was an early backer of civil rights in the Old West. He became a successful businessman, civic leader, and founding father of the state of Colorado.
Barney Ford was born a slave in Virginia on January 22nd, 1822. His mother Phoebe raised him to someday escape the bonds of slavery. When Ford was eighteen, his owner hired him out as a waiter on a Mississippi steamboat. He escaped the life of slavery, with
the help of the Underground Railroad, and went to Chicago. In Chicago he learned the barber's trade. He also met Henry Wagoner. They became good friends and taught themselves to read and write. Ford married Wagoner’s sister, Julia and they had three children. Ford had lived his whole life without having a last name. Julia helped him pick the name Ford after the steam locomotive Lancelot Ford
In 1848, gold was discovered in California. Barney decided that he and his family should go there to make their fortune. Since he was a runaway slave, it was not safe to travel a great distance by land. Instead he chose to travel by ship, and the family sailed to California by way of Nicaragua.
Barney Ford saw many opportunities in Nicaragua and decided to stay. In 1851, he opened his first business, the United States Hotel and Restaurant, which became very successful. Many important people and government officials would stay and eat at Ford’s hotel. During a battle between England and the United States, his hotel was destroyed. Ford returned to Chicago with his family and over $5,000 in savings. He opened a livery stable that also became an Underground Railroad station.
In 1860, ford headed west again, this time to Colorado in search of gold. Because he was Black, he was refused a seat on the stagecoach and had to travel by wagon train. After arriving in Colorado, he was not allowed to rent a hotel room. He was also denied the right to strike a claim in his own name because he was African-American. But, nothing could discourage Barney Ford. Luckily, he met the famous “Aunt Clara Brown, who gave him food and a place to stay.
Barney Ford returned to Denver still determined to make his fortune. He became successful again. He owned two hotels, a restaurant, and a barber shop. His Inter-Ocean Hotels, located in Denver and Cheyenne were two of the best hotels in the west.
Many famous people traveling through the state would stay at Ford’s hotels.
By the 1870’s, Ford was worth over $250,000. He used his wealth to help Black people. He gave money, food and jobs to newly freed slaves. With his friend, Henry Wagoner, Ford started a school for Blacks. The school taught reading, writing, and the rules of government.
When Colorado applied for statehood, Ford argued against it. He feared Blacks would lose their rights if Colorado became a state. Barney would not support a state constitution that barred black men from voting even though they were free men. Because of Barney Ford’s efforts, Colorado failed its first try at statehood.
In 1882, he and his wife were the first blacks to be invited to a Colorado Association of Pioneers dinner. His success as a businessman and civil rights leader has been recorded in many newspapers and books. Although wealthy, he fought for the rights of backs all his life.
Barney ford died in 1902, leaving behind the memory of a great pioneering spirit. He was the first Black to serve on a Colorado grand jury. In 1964, a hill in Breckenridge, Colorado was named, “Barney Ford Hill” in his honor. The buildings that Barney Ford owned have been designated as historical sites in Colorado.
In 1973, a new Denver Public Schools elementary building was named in honor of Barney L. Ford.