Business owners turn time and stuff into valuable products and services and thereby build the country, make our lives better in countless ways, and offer others more reliable and rewarding jobs and careers.
Yet starting and running a successful business is incredibly hard, as anyone operating a public-facing business during the pandemic can tell you. Roughly two-thirds of new businesses fail within their first decade. Business owners face challenges in managing others’ work and office relations, anticipating changes in customer demand, heading off supply-line troubles, marketing effectively in a quickly evolving media landscape, and on and on.
Add to the normal problems of operating a business the racial bigotry that so many suffered through our nation’s history, and we can begin to get a sense of the greatness and strength of character of Colorado’s great Black entrepreneurs. Here I focus on Barney Ford.
Ford was born into slavery in 1822. He escaped in 1848 and, with the help of the Underground Railroad, went to Chicago, where he soon married. As the story goes, Ford took his middle and last name from a locomotive called the Lancelot Ford. A locomotive is an apt symbol of the man, as he powered through setback after setback to earn great success.
An old medallion calls Ford “The Black Baron.” It reads, “Mr. Barney Ford (1822–1902) was a former slave who dared to venture forth in the new frontier of Colorado. He eventually settled in Denver, becoming a political activist, prominent businessman and sometimes millionaire.”
Beyond becoming one of Colorado’s great business leaders, Ford also was a preeminent freedom fighter. As the Wall Street of the Rockies page summarizes, after Ford escaped from slavery he helped others escape as well. Along with William Hardin, Ford also successfully urged Congress to reject Colorado’s application for statehood until the state Constitution extended the vote to minorities. (See also Ed Quillen’s account of this.) Ford was well-known in local Republican politics. A stained glass window now honors Ford in the state capitol. Previously I wrote about Ford’s friend Henry O. Wagoner, another successful business owner and civil-rights champion known as the “Douglass of Colorado.”
Ford opened his first hotel in Nicaragua in 1851 and ran it successfully until it was destroyed by war in 1854. After working in Chicago for a few years, Barney set out for Colorado gold in 1860, landing in Breckenridge.
But bigoted lawmakers and miners destroyed Barney’s mining work. As Summit Daily reviews, “After moving to Colorado, the laws of the day forbid black men from filing mining claims. Sill, Ford found and worked a gold mine with white partners, only to have them cheat him out of the mine. Ford then discovered one area in the West where he could work freely and no color barriers existed—the hospitality industry.” (As I’ve related, there were color barriers there too, but not that stopped Ford.)
History Colorado has a little different account of the mining trouble, saying that Ford and his party “were viciously chased away by law enforcement, who destroyed their supplies and threatened their lives.” Regardless of the details, the results were the same: Racists robbed Ford of his business.
Ford started again, opening a barbershop in Denver, but he lost it to fire in 1863. Within a few months, Ford was back with the People’s Restaurant, which had “a barbershop in the basement, a restaurant on the main floor, and a bar on the second level,” the Colorado Encyclopedia reviews.
Ford, fed up with bigoted Colorado politics, sold his restaurant in 1865 and moved back to Chicago, according to the Encyclopedia. But, with changing laws, he returned the next year to open a new restaurant, which he sold in 1872 to go into the hotel business. You can still visit the building of the restaurant at 1514 Blake Street. Ford’s four-story “Inter-Ocean was the finest hotel in Denver when it opened in 1873,” says the Encyclopedia.
In 1880, Ford returned to Breckenridge—despite having previously been run out of town—to open Ford’s Restaurant and Chop House and to invest in silver mines. Ford built a fine home for his family, which today houses the Barney Ford House Museum that features a great statue of the man. In 2018, Ford was inducted into the Colorado Tourism Hall of Fame; Breckenridge released a great video for the occasion honoring Ford and recounting his achievements.
Since territorial days, on the whole Coloradans have made real moral progress. Our laws are more equitable and our attitudes less prejudicial (with some despicable exceptions). Today we can find hundreds of successful Black-owned business in Colorado. All of us, whether we own a business or benefit from doing business in this state, owe a great deal to the financial and political achievements of Barney Lancelot Ford, a locomotive for progress.
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