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Culture & Identity

The Barney Ford Story: How A Former Slave Became One Of Colorado's Most Successful Businessmen

Steven Shepard (Barney Ford).JPG
Sylvia Lambe
A Sept. 2018 photo of Steven Shepard (left) dressed as businessman Barney Ford, next to John Thomas, dressed as a Tuskegee Airman, and Alton Clark, dressed as newspaper and real estate mogul Lewis Price. They performed historical reenactments at the Higher Ground Fair in Laramie, Wyoming.

Earlier this month, Congress passed a bill to officially recognize Juneteenth as a National Holiday, a day that marks the anniversary of when many of the last enslaved people finally learned of their freedom in 1865. To many this day represents a commitment to remember the lives, stories, and incredible contributions of the enslaved that have long been overlooked.

In honor of Juneteenth, we take a look at the life and legacy of Barney Ford, a widely successful Denver businessman who not only escaped from slavery on the Underground Railroad, but later worked on that network to help others do the same.

Colorado Edition’s Alana Schreiber spoke to former board member and volunteer at the Black American West Museum in Denver and Barney Ford reenactor, Steve Shepard. He shared Ford’s extraordinary journey from Virginia to Chicago to Nicaragua to Colorado, and explained why the Barney L. Ford building in Denver is Colorado’s one location that’s nationally recognized as associated with the Underground Railroad.

Highlights

This story has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alana Schreiber: Throughout his life, Barney Ford was a barber, restaurateur, hotel manager, civil rights pioneer, and all-around entrepreneur. In the 1870s, he was known as “the Black Baron of Colorado,” being the 14th wealthiest man in the territory. But, back in 1822, he was born into slavery in Stafford, Virginia.

Steve Shepard: The breakthrough in Barney's learning came after his slave owner passed away and the mistress of that plantation, upon discovering that Barney was the son of her dead husband, decided to sell Barney to a very learned person who would constantly read Shakespeare and other upscale documents. And Barney would listen and he learned the diction and also learned to read.

By the time Barney was about 18, he was leased out to a showboat. There, he met someone who would change the course of his life.

While he was on that ship, he befriended one of the actors. And as it turns out, that actor was part of the abolitionist movement. He promised Barney that he would help him to escape slavery. So one day, the actor helped Barney to dress up as a slightly built white woman and helped him to escape that boat. He followed the North Star, as most escaped slaves did, and made his way to Chicago. And in Chicago, Barney would transport slaves from Chicago to the Canadian border for their freedom. But Barney did have to be very careful as he did this because he was an escaped fugitive slave.

At this time, Barney was also working in a barbershop where he heard talk of the California gold rush and decided that he, and his new wife Julia, should be a part of it. But on their journey by boat to California, they got off to Nicaragua, where Barney established a successful hotel and restaurant. But it wasn't long before tensions escalated. There was a growing movement to reinstate slavery, and the United States and Great Britain fought over control of the land.

The United States bombed that area, which just obliterated his hotel. He and Julia decided to come back to Chicago and restart their lives.

Steve Shepard Barney Ford Reenactor.jpg
A Sept. 2018 photo of Steve Shepard reenacting Barney Ford, a 19th century Denver businessman, at the Higher Ground Fair in Laramie, Wyoming.

Back in Chicago in 1859, Barney heard more talk about gold out West, this time in Colorado. But when he arrived by mule train, he was swindled out of a claim to a gold mine by an attorney. So, he moved to Denver and started a restaurant. It was successful, and Barney made a ton of money, but he was frustrated that Colorado lawmakers still refused to grant African Americans the right to vote.

A group of businessmen, Black politicians, and activists asked Barney to go to Washington, D.C. to convince the national legislature to not grant Colorado statehood until Colorado granted the Black vote. Well, that was a successful move, because Colorado, even though they were applying for statehood in 1865, it was not granted because of that reason. And he was very pleased with that. In fact, Barney decided to come back to Colorado because he knew that he could be very effective in the political arena. He was eventually appointed to the Colorado grand jury as well as the Board of Bank Examiners. At that time, [he was] practically the only African American who was involved in that level of politics. His racial identity didn't matter because he was providing income to those other folks who were investing in his operations. So, at that time, Barney had an income which was 14th highest in the Colorado area. So that's how he developed that name, the Black Baron, or Mr. Barney Ford.

Barney Ford was an entrepreneur through and through. To this day, you can visit the building in Denver, where Barney once operated his businesses. Although the building itself was not a stop on the Underground Railroad, Steve says that it makes sense to recognize the building as part of Underground Railroad history.

The impact of the Underground Railroad on Barney Ford's life is the reason that that building at 1514 Blake Street has been noted as being related, because it meant so much to Barney Ford. Not only did it help him to escape slavery, but he spent so much of his time and his life helping to further the Black population through the Underground Railroad.

The story of Barney Ford is just one of the amazing journeys of the formerly enslaved. And with Juneteenth now recognized as a national holiday, Steve is hopeful that more stories like Barney's will come to light.

Just in the past two weeks, I was able to travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma for the commemoration of the Tulsa massacre. And one of the outstanding points of that was that I have friends who are in their 70s who grew up 30 miles away from Tulsa and had never heard of that. Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes. That's the reason that we study history and study lives like Barney Ford.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for June 24. You can find the full episode here.