The Black American West Museum is one of Denver's unsung treasures. It's always been underfunded, and as a result is usually only open a few hours a week, when it sees a trickle of visitors. But on a Saturday earlier this month, that trickle grew into a steady stream of people eager to support the place and enjoy a free day hosted in conjunction with Historic Denver.
"As Five Points changes more and more, places like the Black American West Museum are becoming more and more important," says Annie Levinsky. "That's why we jumped on this opportunity."
And the opportunity is this: Every year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation selects properties to compete for preservation prize money; the 2019 #VoteYourMainStreet is focusing on sites rich in women’s history, including the Dr. Justina Ford House, which houses the Black American West Museum. It's one of twenty nominees vying for part of the $2 million pot and is up for a $150,000 grant that would be used to fix the windows and masonry. Grant winners will be determined by the number of votes they get through October 29. That's today.
Dr. Justina Ford, Colorado's first licensed female African-American physician, was born in Illinois in 1871, graduated from medical school in 1899...and was immediately denied her medical license. When she moved to Denver a few years later, she wasn't allowed to join the Colorado Medical Association or given hospital privileges. So she set up a practice in her home at 2335 Arapahoe Street.
By the time she stopped seeing patients, just a few weeks before her death in 1952, she'd delivered nearly 7,000 babies, earning the nickname "the Baby Doctor." She'd finally been allowed to join the Colorado and American Medical associations two years earlier. She was still the only female African-American physician in Denver.
In the 1980s, the Dr. Justina Ford House, a circa 1890, two-story Italianate design, was saved from demolition by Historic Denver and the Five Points community; in 1984 it was moved to to its current address at 3091 California Street, where it later became the home of the Black American West Museum.
The museum got its start in the Five Points shop of Paul Stewart, a barber who'd become obsessed with the little-known history of African-Americans in the West, including Dr. Ford. At his barbershop, he would interview black customers about their Western heritage, collecting stories and later artifacts (cowboy gear, rifles, mailbags, lariats, spurs, shaving mugs, photos of black miners and lawmen) that told the missing story of the black Western experience, particularly those of black cowboys. Veterans of Texas cattle drives in the 1870s and ’80s estimated that a third of the 35,000 cowboys on the trail were black or Mexican; whatever their private prejudices, cowhands largely worked, slept and ate together. But that reality was mostly lost to Hollywood.
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By 1971, Stewart’s collection had grown too large for his barbershop, and he founded the Black American West Museum, first at Clayton College, then in the basement of black-owned radio station KDKO, and finally in the Justina Ford House. Stewart passed away on November 12, 2015, but his mission continues: “Telling it like it was.”
The #VoteYourMainStreet prize money could certainly help amplify the story of early black residents of Colorado. As the museum's campaign notes, “She delivered three generations, now let’s deliver for her.”
At the moment, the Dr. Justina Ford House is in tenth place in the contest. "We need people to keep voting," says Levinsky, "because it needs to keep going."
You can vote up to five times today here; the contest ends today.