In the state of Virginia, late January 1822, a young Negro girl named Phoebe gave birth to a baby boy. As the son of a slave mother and her white slave owner the child was born with no last name. Instead, he was given only the first name of Barney. His mother had little to offer the child, but she taught him to carry a sense of self-pride and a love for education. With those attributes Barney taught himself to read and write, and after the untimely death of his young mother, and with the aid of the Underground Railroad, he escaped slavery.
The once-nameless slave child grew to be a respected, stalwart, politically astute man of high social standing. A successful restaurateur, Mr. Ford became known as, The Black Baron of Colorado. He was one of Denver’s elite and proved to be a great orator with an unyielding quest for equality, fairness, and justice for all men. Barney L. Ford would become the first black man to sit on a grand jury, and he was instrumental in bringing minority voting rights to the state of Colorado.While on the run, Barney admired the prestigious, gold lettering on a shiny, black locomotive. The words, Lancelot and Ford, elegantly graced the side of the powerful steam engine. Barney reasoned that as a free man, he should have a full name. So, from that moment forward, he decided he would be known as Barney Lancelot Ford. A name that would come to be remembered in history, and would eventually grace the halls of Colorado’s State Capital in Denver. Today, a stained glass image of Barney L. Ford stands boldly above the chairperson’s seat in the Colorado State House Chamber.
He was a businessman who embraced a cause and then returned to his life. Robert Goldberg, a history professor at Utah State, challenges, “Black activists were more observers than participants in these happenings. Civic leaders had made peace and prosperity their goals, not racial justice” (Goldberg, 2010, para. 27). Although Barney Ford was not an activist, he was a participant in actively pursuing change. However, he did not act alone.More than a hundred years before the Greensboro four sat at a Woolworth’s counter in defiance of inequity based on race, Mr. Ford protested the same issue in regards to voting rights (Gladwell, 2010). When the four young men of Greensboro challenged the socially accepted standards in 1960, they were not the catalyst for the beginning of the civil rights movement. Although daring and bold, the sit-in was a mere continuation of many struggles carried forward from those who came before. Those who cleared the path. Mr. Ford was such a predecessor, but an activist, he was not.
Mr. Barney Lancelot Ford, motivated others to build a social movement dedicated to blocking Colorado from statehood until all men, regardless of race, had equal and unrestricted voting rights. Though Mr. Ford had intelligence, money, and prestige, he was not particularly interested in politics. He also knew one man alone could not block Colorado statehood. It was the passion for the issue that motivated him to get involved, and it was the shared enthusiasm of a collection of people that propelled the movement forward. Once successful in his efforts, Mr. Ford went back to concentrating on his own business endeavors, never to pursue a political position.
America is not a monarchy. We have no kings, no emperors. This nation was founded, and continues to evolve, as a result of an incalculable number of great acts by ordinary individuals. Barney is an example of how one man rising to the challenge of one issue is the thread that binds the fabric of our political structure. As well, others such as Miss Rosa Parks and Harriot Tubman are additional examples of how when change is due; it is the greatness of the deed, and not the size of the actor, that ignites social engagement. This has always been the American way.
Black History month affords us the opportunity to honor and reflect on the extraordinary contributions of so many ordinary individuals. Mr. Barney Lancelot Ford is one of my heroes and though I enthusiastically share his story, each time I can barely do so without emotion. His strength of character and dogged determination against a system of injustice always moves me and humbles me. I am in awe. I will forever share the tail of Barney, and I hope in doing so, others will come to love this man, born a slave, given only a first name, just as I love him. Just Barney.