I first read about its Five Points Historic District in Denver’s Official Visitors Guide. It was on the “Celebrate Diversity” page and made me aware of the Black American West Museum there. I vowed to visit it and found a very unique attraction that celebrates the lives of 3 relatively unknown African Americans who settled in Colorado and made history.
As an adult, Paul Stewart met an African American cowboy who had led cattle drives. Stewart was born in Iowa. He became a cowboy who had a ranch outside Denver. Totally engrossed in cowboy lore and dressed like a cowboy, Stewart began to search all over The West for something not in traditional history books–the story of the black cowboy. While Stewart learned, he collected memorabilia. His collection became the basis for this museum. It’s displayed on the 2nd floor in a house that was moved to the Five Points neighborhood in the 1980s. Scheduled to be bulldozed, this house was moved instead and become a community center as vivid as The Rossonian, a jazz hot spot and music club in Five Points that hosted Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and other early greats who performed for mixed audiences.
This house once belonged to Dr. Justina L. Ford. Ford was Denver’s only female doctor and an African American. She was born in Illinois, came to Denver from St. Louis, and applied for a medical license. This Colorado pioneer was refused a license until 1902 and was denied membership in the Colorado Medical Society (CMS). This made it impossible for her to practice medicine in hospitals, so she established a medical office in her home, which is now this museum and a busy community asset that does a lot of outreach. Until her death in 1952, Ford cured illnesses and delivered over 7,000 babies. According to our host at the Black American West Museum, a lifelong Five Point resident who knows a lot about her subject, this volunteer was busy greeting a steady stream of visitors, including a couple from Germany, the whole time Ruth and I were there. She told me that Dr. Justina Ford learned to speak 36 languages to provide medical care for Denver’s large immigrant community and scores of Native Americans. Despite no CMS membership, Ford was given access to Denver Medical Hospital in the late 1930s. A re-creation of her medical office is downstairs in this museum.
The 3rd person honored here is Oliver T. Jackson, founder of the town of Dearfield near Greeley. He is portrayed by an actor in a 25 minute film that is available to museum visitors and is definitely worth watching. There is also a room entirely devoted to Dearfield on the 2nd floor. There were more than 25 Black settlements in Colorado, but Dearfield was the only incorporated one. This farming community once had a population of 700 and 5,000 acres under cultivation. Booker T. Washington visited. By 1940 there were only 12 people still living in Dearfield.
One Black American West Museum handout contained 3 little known facts. Thanks to real estate investments, some African-Americans were among The West’s earliest millionaires, a Black mine owner named Henry Parker made one of Colorado’s 1st gold discoveries, and 1 of 3 cowboys in The West were African American.