As the son of a white slave owner and a slave mother, Barney Ford’s life began as a slave in Virginia. While working on a Mississippi riverboat, Ford was presented with the opportunity to escape from a life of slavery. He escaped in Illinois and eventually settled in Chicago with the aid of the Underground Railroad.
He married Julia Lyoni and became a successful barber when he was in Chicago. After hearing of the gold rush in California, the Fords sailed west, through Central America in 1851. While waiting for passage to California, in Nicaragua, Ford heard many stories of failed attempts at gold. He decided he would cater to the travelers instead. He managed to create two successful hotels in Nicaragua, before he sold them when a civil war broke out. He returned to Chicago.
Ford’s next endeavor was Denver and the Colorado Gold Rush. Although he had land claims, unfortunate events and scams forestalled his gold ambitions. Therefore, Ford returned to barbering and started a small restaurant. In Denver, Ford took an interest in politics, especially civil rights issues. He actively worked alongside other black community leaders to prevent Colorado from entering the Union without the guarantee of minorities the right to vote. Ford was passionate towards the effort to protect and acquire minority rights, but his successful People’s Restaurant at 1514 Black Street and other business ventures, brought him the label of “Black Baron of Colorado” from his political rivals. Nonetheless, to the end of his days, Barney Ford remained a leading member of the Denver business community and a prime example of the Republican party.