With days to go before the kick-off to Black History Month, the town of Breckenridge is reminding the community of its ties to pioneering Black civil rights advocate and entrepreneur Barney Ford.
Ford, who was born into slavery in Virginia on Jan. 22, 1822, left a legacy of perseverance having escaped slavery at the age of 26 and going on to petition for universal suffrage, running for Colorado elected office and starting multiple business ventures — some of which were in Breckenridge.
Last year, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared Feb. 1 as Barney Ford Day, a proclamation that was followed by one from Breckenridge Town Council during a Jan. 24 meeting.
“We hope to firmly demonstrate the respect and value we have for our residents of Black heritage,” said Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula, reading the proclamation that designates Feb. 1 as Barney Ford Day in the town. “Therefore, be it resolved that I … call upon all Breckenridge residents to join me in honoring the life, contributions of Barney Ford to our town, state, nation as we enter Black History Month.”
Ford, who lived in Breckenridge during the town’s inception in the mid-1800s, had a storied history before making it to the Rocky Mountains.
As a child, he was sold several times and was believed to have been raised on a cotton plantation in South Carolina. He became educated, possibly self-taught, despite the barrier for enslaved people to attend schools that existed at the time.
In his early 20s, Ford was sold again and brought to Illinois where he was able to escape slavery in part because of Illinois’ status as a free state, though he was believed to have been helped by the underground railroad. He later met his wife, Julia, in Chicago and had children.
He traveled across the country, from Chicago to California to Colorado and Wyoming — with even a stint in Nicaragua where he opened a hotel, his first successful venture. Chasing the gold rush, he returned to the United States and eventually opened a barber shop and restaurant in Denver.
The businesses burned to the ground during the city’s Great Fire of 1863 but Ford was able to rebuild both.
He was known to have opened a boarding house in Breckenridge in 1859, two years after the town was established. Later in his life, he started a restaurant in the town called Ford’s Chop House and built his home which is now the Barney Ford House Museum on East Washington Avenue in downtown Breckenridge.
Ford was one of 100 African Americans who petitioned against Colorado statehood because the bill did not provide an opportunity for universal suffrage. He also ran for the Colorado Territorial Legislature, which he lost.
Despite Ford’s extensive contributions, his story is one that continues to remain lesser-known among the Breckenridge community and beyond.
“I often say that Barney Ford is one of the most important obscure people in our local history,” said Larissa O’Neil, executive director of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, which manages the museum. “He was so dedicated through his life of seeking equality, seeking dignity … we have this one site in Breckenridge for someone who did so much on a statewide and national scale to represent people of color at a time when that was incredibly difficult.”
O’Neil commended the town council’s proclamation and its effort to “mark this special day at a local level for someone who is so important, historically, and someone a lot of people still don’t know a lot about.”
O’Neil said the history alliance will be hosting its own celebration of Ford’s life on Feb. 1 with free refreshments served from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the museum, located at 111 East Washington Ave., Breckenridge.
Residents and visitors can view artwork, mostly oil paintings, of Ford by Leilani Abeyta — who was commissioned in 2021 to create artwork for the Rocky Mountain PBS documentary, “Colorado Experience: Mr. Barney Ford.”
The museum also features a recently-acquired letter written by Ford to his enslaver following his freedom. The letter was printed in an abolitionist-leaning newspaper in Chicago in the 1950s, according to O’Neil.
“I think it shows a lot about who Barney Ford was and his personality and what shaped the rest of his life,” O’Neil said.
The museum’s open house Feb. 1 presents a “great way to start Black History Month by acknowledging and honoring someone who made a difference in our local community but who really strove to seek equality for people of different backgrounds throughout his life,” O’Neil said.
She added: “The themes of his life are relevant today, and I think that’s a great takeaway.”
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