Barney Lancelot Ford, former slave and Colorado civil rights activist was born January 22, 1822 in Virginia.* Alongside his mother, Phoebe, he worked on a plantation in South Carolina where his mother encouraged the idea of freedom. At the age of seventeen or eighteen, Phoebe was killed during an escape attempt and Ford's master sent him to work as a waiter on a Mississippi River steamboat. With the help of the Underground Railroad, Ford escaped and settled in Chicago, Illinois.
Once settled in Chicago, Ford taught himself to read and write, learned the barber's trade, and remained active with the Underground Railroad. Since slaves were not usually given last names, his wife Julia whom he met and wedded in Chicago helped him choose his middle and last names, taken from a steam engine entitled Lancelot Ford. When reports of the gold rush in California reached Ford and his wife, they set off in 1851 to seek their fortune.
Travelling overland was dangerous for fugitive slaves, so Ford booked passage on a ship which happened to stop at Greytown, Nicaragua (now known as San Juan del Norte.) Finding the port town to his liking, instead of continuing on to California he opened a hotel called the United States Hotel and Restaurant. A popular stop for American dignitaries, the hotel was destroyed in 1854 when an American warship bombed the town during a dispute with Great Britain. Instead of rebuilding, Ford left Nicaragua and returned to Chicago where he operated a livery stable and became active again in the Underground Railroad.
Again the lure of gold called to Ford, again from the American West. In 1860 he headed to Breckenridge, Colorado where, because he was African-American, he was unable to stake a claim. On the advice of his lawyer, Ford put the claim in the lawyer's name with the agreement Ford could keep any profits. Thinking that Ford had struck it rich, the lawyer evicted Ford off the land. No gold was ever found at the site, and a rumor was started that Ford had buried the treasure on the mountainside, which became known as Nigger Hill (later renamed Barney Ford Hill in 1964.)
Instead of returning to Chicago, Ford moved to Denver, Colorado where he opened a barbershop. Losing the shop to the fire which destroyed most of Denver in April of 1863, he took out a loan from a local banker and built the People's Restaurant (which still stands at 1514 Blake Street.) The success of the restaurant led Ford to build the fancy Inter-Ocean Hotels, one in Denver and the other in Cheyenne, Wyoming (neither of which still stand.)
During the Civil War Ford gave jobs, food, and money to slaves who were recently freed or had escaped. Along with his friend Henry Wagoner, Ford founded the first adult education classes for African-Americans in Colorado. After the war ended and Colorado applied for statehood, Ford and Wagoner successfully lobbied the United States Congress to deny Colorado statehood until African-American men were given the right to vote in the state constitution.
Before his death from a stroke on December 22, 1902, Ford had many firsts as an African-American, including serving on a grand jury in Colorado, (along with his wife) becoming a member of the Colorado Association of Pioneers, and in 1898 the Fords were included on Denver's Social Register. His house in Breckenridge, built in 1882, is now a museum dedicated to his memory at 111 East Washington Avenue, and a stained glass portrait of Ford hangs in the Colorado House of Representatives.
*Records of slave births were generally not kept. Various sources put his birth anywhere from 1822-1827 and in either Virginia or South Carolina; more sources indicate 1822 and Virginia.