Colorado Pioneer; Wife and Business Partner of Barney Ford Who Escaped Slavery and Became Leading Colorado Entrepreneur & Advocate for Black Suffrage
Julia Lyons was born a free Black woman in Indiana in 1827. When she was 22 and living in Chicago she met and fell in love with an extraordinary man named Barney. Barney had been born into slavery in Virginia, but had escaped after being hired out to work on a riverboat. He made his way to Chicago and through his involvement in the abolition movement and underground railroad, he met Julia. They were married in 1849.
As a former enslaved man Barney had no middle or last name. Legend has it that Julia helped him pick the names “Lancelot Ford” after a powerful steam engine of that name. In what would turn out to be a life-altering gesture, young Julia gave Barney $2 to cover the cost of tuition at a barber school, a profession he would turn to time and again over the years.
In 1851, after just a few years of married life, Julia and Barney embarked on a journey from Chicago that took an unexpected turn. Attracted by the lure of gold in California they had decided to try their luck there. Because Barney had escaped slavery, it was too risky to journey overland. With passage of the Fugitive Slave Act Barney was at risk of being captured at any time, even when he was in a free state. Thus, the safest way for them to travel was the long way by sea, from New York down to Nicaragua, across Central America by foot and then by ship again north to California. During the journey the ship stopped in Nicaragua for a few days and so began an unanticipated, but ultimately very successful interlude.
Julia and Barney realized the business potential of the location, and opened a hotel and restaurant. The business became exceedingly popular and they made would be their first fortune there. After thriving for several years, conflict broke out when the town attempted to levy taxes on ships using the port.
Representatives from the U.S. Navy and British Navy met in the Fords’ Hotel. The U.S. officials advised the Fords to gather their belongings and leave the area as it would be bombarded the next morning. The next day Julia and Barney watched from across the Bay as their hotel was destroyed by artillery. As would be typical for them their whole lives, they faced down this set back, gathered their fortitude, and proceeded to build another hotel. Their Nicaraguan sojourn came to an alarming end, however, when the country was overtaken by an American who sought to reinstitute slavery. Fearing the dreadful consequences, Julia and Barney moved back to Chicago.
It wasn’t long before Barney heard stories of gold being discovered in Breckenridge, Colorado, and the siren call of opportunity beckoned. He and Julia had a young baby, and so Julia stayed behind in Chicago while Barney made his way to Colorado in 1860 as part of the Colorado Gold Rush. Barney struck gold, but white claim jumpers forced him off his claim. He fled to Denver, & using his skills facilitated by Julia’s generosity from their early days together, he once again opened a barber shop.
Julia and their first born joined him in Denver. In 1863, while Julia was in labor with their second child, adversity struck again as the Great Denver Fire broke out. Julia was rushed to safety, and Barney went to fight the flames. The scale of the fire was immense, however, and their barber shop was burned to the ground. Once again Julia and Barney had to start over. With the help of a loan they rebuilt the barber shop and expanded their enterprise to include a restaurant and hotel. They were the first residents to pay back a post-fire business loan, repaying it just 90 days after they reopened their doors.
Over the years Julia and Barney lost and rebuilt their fortune multiple times. They always fought their way back and were actively engaged in the community. Barney lobbied for Black suffrage in Colorado and played a role in ensuring that Colorado was admitted to the Union as a free state. With Julia at his side, he became a leading entrepreneur and civic leader in both Denver and Breckenridge.
At their mansion in Denver, influential members of society would call on Julia. The elegant home Julia and Barney built in Breckenridge still stands and today is open as a museum. Julia was the first Black women on the Denver Social Register. In 1882 Julia and Barney were the first blacks to be invited to the Colorado Association of Pioneers Dinner.
Julia and Barney were married fifty years. She could scarcely have imagined that the two dollars she gave to Barney to cover his barber shop tuition when they were just starting out, would be the stepping stone into not just a thriving business enterprise, but also a force for progress and advancement of civil rights in Colorado.
Food Tells a Story, History Revealed in the Food we Eat
Colorado Encyclopedia, Barney Ford
Barney Ford Biography, Barney Ford Elementary Archive, Denver Public Schools
Colorado Business Hall of Fame
PBS.org; The Colorado Experience; Barney Ford
University of Colorado, Boulder, Barney Ford – The Man