Enslaved men and women did not simply accept their fate without protest. Slave rebellions were at the time known. For Barney L. Ford, he risked it all to escape to freedom in some daring and ingenious ways on the Underground Railroad. He later worked to help others escape via the network. Ford’s life and journey from Virginia to Chicago to Nicaragua to Colorado was tough, but he made it, becoming one of Colorado’s most successful businessmen.
In the 1870s, he was known as “the Black Baron of Colorado,” being the 14th wealthiest man in the territory, according to a report. This is his story.
Born in 1822 to a Virginia slave and a white plantation owner, Ford grew up in South Carolina where he learned to read and write from a learned person he was sold to. At age 18, Ford was leased out to a showboat, where he met a man who was part of the abolitionist movement. The man helped Ford, who was around 26, to escape the boat by dressing him up as a slightly built white woman. Ford escaped slavery to Chicago, where he also helped transport enslaved men and women to the Canadian border for their freedom.
While working in a barbershop during this period, Ford heard people talk of the California gold rush. At that moment, he came to the conclusion that he and his wife, whom he had just married, should be a part of it. They began their journey by boat to California but while on this journey, they stopped at Nicaragua, where Ford set up an elegant 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,” KUNC wrote in a report. Amid the fight over the land, the United States bombed that area, destroying Ford’s hotel. Not too long after, he decided to come back to Chicago with his wife to start their lives afresh.
While in Chicago in 1859, Ford learned of another gold rush – this time in Colorado. When he got there, an attorney swindled him out of a claim to a gold mine. So, he moved to Denver and started a restaurant. He succeeded in that business as he made a lot of money. Though Denver’s popular Inter-Ocean Hotel and Ford’s Restaurant and Chop House in Breckenridge may be the best known of his businesses, Ford also built a barbershop that soon brought in tons of money to enable him to add a restaurant. Forbes writes that at its peak, the business was bringing in nearly $250 a day (nearly $2 million a year in today’s money).
By 1865, Ford had turned his attention to politics. He was incensed that Colorado lawmakers were refusing to grant African Americans the right to vote. He successfully opposed Colorado statehood on the grounds that Black men were being denied the ballot. Apart from joining other educated Black people in the region to set up an adult education class for Blacks, he traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby the U.S. Senate for the right to vote, and became the first Black man in the state to serve on a U.S. grand jury.
“At that time, [he was] practically the only African American who was involved in that level of politics,” according to KUNC, adding that Ford’s “racial identity didn’t matter because he was providing income to those other folks who were investing in his operations.”
Ford’s life as a barber, hotel manager, restaurateur, and civil rights pioneer came to an end in 1902 when he breathed his last. His glass image can be found in Colorado’s House of Representatives for being a voice of civil rights and for his activities to end racial discrimination.