New PBS documentary tells the story of Breckenridge businessman Barney Ford
Rocky Mountain PBS set to premier newest 'Colorado Experience' episode Feb. 24
High on the wall behind the speaker’s desk in the House Chamber of the Colorado Capitol is a stained glass depiction of a man standing in front of a hotel on a boardwalk with a cane in one hand and a paper in the other.
Many might not know the story of the man whose name is adorned with columbines below his glass portrait, but that’s likely to change with the latest documentary in Rocky Mountain PBS’s “Colorado Experience” series.
The story of Barney Lancelot Ford is one of constantly overcoming obstacles, helping others and addressing one’s own identity. An escaped slave, he become one of the most prominent businessmen and an important voice for civil rights in the early days of Colorado.
Throughout his life, Ford found success amid obstacles. He was born into slavery in Virginia to a mother who was raped and impregnated by her owner, learned to read in secret and escaped to freedom while working on a riverboat.
Shortly after marrying in Chicago, he and his wife, Julia Lyoni, booked passage on a ship to take them by sea to the gold fields in California, but they ended up stopping in Nicaragua, where Ford later owned a restaurant and hotel before returning to Chicago and eventually heading for the gold fields of the Colorado Territory.
As a Black man with light skin, Ford was given some preferential treatment not afforded to those with darker skin, but he also faced many obstacles associated with his race. In Colorado, he was forced to relinquish his first mining claim outside of Central City because people of color weren’t allowed to own mining claims.
After trying to enter into a legal agreement to mine gold on the hill outside Breckenridge that now bears his name, Ford went into business in Denver and found success, eventually becoming known as “the Black Baron of Colorado.”
As the territory began to lobby for statehood, Ford petitioned congress to delay Colorado’s statehood until suffrage was granted to men of color, an effort that ultimately was successful and, according to the documentary, “one of the very few winning civil rights struggles of the 19th century.” He also worked to improve education for people of color, eventually establishing a school for Black children in Denver with Henry O. Wagoner.
In the 1870s, he returned to Breckenridge, running a hotel and restaurant there until 1890 when the couple moved back to Denver for his wife’s health. His wife died in 1899, and he died in 1902. At the time of his death, Ford had enough prominence that his obituary writer mistakenly thought he had been an elected official.
“As a writer looking at this story, you can’t make this up,” said Carol L. Fleisher, a senior producer, writer and narrator for the documentary. “How the heck does an escaped slave become the ’Black Baron of Colorado’ while the Civil War was raging?”
The people who were involved in the production of the documentary each took away something different from Ford’s story.
“It is an amazing life story full of remarkable accomplishments,” said June Walters, a tour manager, docent and guide for the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. “He was a person who just kept constantly moving on, moving up, moving forward. … He just kept on moving.”
As a biracial Asian-American, Walters said Ford’s experience as a Black man with a white father has long resonated with her. Something that Leilani Abeyta, an artist who was hired to depict different times in Ford’s life for the documentary, also related to.
“The more I learned about him, the more I kept drawing parallels to my own life,” said Abeyta, who is also biracial. “… There’s an internal conflict between acknowledging that privilege while still owning my heritage. It’s helped me to embrace my background. Barney Ford didn’t try to appear more white, he just embraced his background.”
Abeyta’s family came from Mexico, with her great-great-grandmother coming to Colorado by crossing the Rio Grande. She said that, like Ford, a lot of her family’s early experiences in the country were full of tragedy, but ultimately they were able to establish themselves and “bring good” to their family.
“Even though his birth was rooted in trauma, it didn’t change who he was and how much good he brought into the world,” she said.
“Barney Ford was primarily a businessman, and basically that was his career, but he always said his mother taught him that whatever he learned in life and whatever he earned in life, he owed it to his fellow man,” said Steve Shepard, a member of the advisory board for the Black American West Museum in Denver, who appears in the documentary.
Justin Lewis, a writer and editor on the documentary, grew up in Colorado and wasn’t fully aware of Ford’s story until he started work on the project. He hopes that telling Ford’s story will help it sink deeper into the awareness of people around the state.
”The first time I heard (Ford’s story), I was shocked that more people don’t know this story,“ Lewis said. ”I was shocked that there was such a founding member of our state. As a Black man living in Colorado, I was shocked I hadn’t heard this.”
For Lewis, Ford’s biracial background also resonates, but for a slightly different reason.
“He didn’t get to choose whether he was white or Black,” said Lewis, which is an issue he said applies to the present, as well. “… Even today, I have a mixed-race son, and I tell my wife he’s going to be looked at as a Black person.”
While Ford’s story is an important one in Colorado’s history, it is also particularly relevant in today’s climate.
“If we had done his story even five years ago, I don’t know if it would be as relevant as it is now,” said Julie Speer Jackson, who worked as an executive producer, writer, director and videographer for the project.
The filming for the documentary took place in 2020, amid Black Lives Matter protests following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers. As it delves into Ford’s legacy, the documentary addresses how “civil rights is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Shepard said.
“I also hope (viewers) understand that, although it was a lot worse back then, those obstacles still exist,” Lewis said. “We’re still having some of these conversations. It can get a little frustrating, but I’m blessed as a filmmaker to be able to tell some of these stories, particularly the story of Barney Ford.”
Rocky Mountain PBS’s award-winning history series “Colorado Experience” explores the people, events and places that have shaped Colorado. Its latest episode on Barney Ford is showing next week:
• 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24, on Rocky Mountain PBS’ YouTube channel
• 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, on the Rocky Mountain PBS channel, Summit Public Radio & TV Channel 8.2
• Streaming on demand starting Friday, Feb. 26, at RMPBS.org/coex