Barney Lancelot Ford left his mark on Colorado. He was a prominent businessman and African American civil rights pioneer in Colorado. He was born on January 22, 1822 in Virginia. He grew up a slave. At the age of 17 or 18, he traveled the Underground Railroad to Chicago. In Chicago, Ford taught himself to read and write, learned the barber's trade, and remained active with the Underground Railroad. Ford met and married Julia Lyon in Chicago. She helped him choose a middle and last name, taken from a steam engine titled Lancelot Ford. Slaves were not usually given last names.
In 1851, Barney and Julia got word of the gold rush in California and set off to seek their fortune. Because Ford was a fugitive slave, he and Julia booked passage on a ship, which stopped in a port town in Nicaragua. They liked the town and lived there for a while. After a fire destroyed a hotel Ford had opened in Greytown, Nicaragua, the Fords returned to Chicago.
Once again lured by their quest for gold, the Fords moved to Breckenridge, Colorado. Ford still dreamed of striking rich in the gold mining business and in 1860 staked a claim in Breckenridge, but it was all lost because he was duped by a dishonest lawyer, who staked the claim on Ford's behalf. African American men at the time could not register claims on their own. Barney and Julia retreated to Denver to start over. Their house in Breckenridge, built in 1882 and located at 111 East Washington Avenue, is now a museum dedicated to his memory.
In Denver, Ford opened a barbershop and successfully ran it bringing in prominent Denverites. In 1863, the barbershop burned to the ground and because of his reputation, he was able to borrow $9,000 from a local banker to build a "first-rate" barbershop, restaurant, and hotel. These businesses were highly successful and he used the profits to build a much larger and grander hotel called the Inter Ocean Hotel at 16th and Blake Streets in Denver. One of his buildings is still used today. It is located at 1514 Blake Street in Downtown Denver.
By the 1870's, Ford was worth over $250,000. He used his wealth to help African Americans. He gave money, food, and jobs to newly freed slaves. He never forgot the kindness of Clara Brown who helped him after arriving in Colorado. Ford could not rent a hotel room, but nothing discouraged him. The famous "Aunt" Clara Brown, gave him food and a place to stay. Clara Brown was called the "Angel of the Rockies." She became one of the first African American women to settle in Colorado. She was a skillful business woman and gained a reputation for caring for people of all races. Clara Brown and Barney Ford became life-long friends and worked tirelessly (in their respective efforts) to bring African Americans out of poverty and enslavement. Ford went on to start a school for African Americans with his friend Henry Wagoner. The school taught reading, writing, and the rules of government.
Although Barney Ford was wealthy, he fought for the rights of African Americans all of his life. He died in 1902 at the age of 80, leaving behind a memory of a great pioneering spirit. He was the first African American to serve on a Colorado jury. In 1964, a hill in Breckenridge, Colorado was named the "Barney Ford Hill" in his honor. In 1973, a new Denver Public School building was named in honor of Barney L. Ford. Today a stain-glass portrait of Barney L. Ford is on display in the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver.