Black American West Museum & Heritage Center

Today the museum houses relics of other African Americans’ significance in shaping the Colorado we know today.

Dr. Justina Ford “The Lady Doctor”

Dr. Justina Laurena Ford was the first Black Woman Licensed Physician to practice in Denver, Colorado from 1902 – 1952. Indeed her mother’s daughter, who was a nurse. And by her, Dr. Ford’s blooming interest in obstetrics and homeopathic care was cultivated as she accompanied her mother when she tended to patients some years after the Civil War. As an adult, the young apprentice would later expound upon her mother’s novice teachings at Hering Medical College, from which she graduated in 1899. She had married Baptist Minister, John Ford in 1892, who first move to Denver to minister at Zion Baptist Church. Dr. Ford joined him in 1902, whereafter settling in she received her Colorado medical license.

Although Dr. Ford was sufficiently credentialed with a medical doctorate and licensure to practice in Illinois, Alabama, and Colorado, she was still discriminately denied admission to the Colorado Medical Association; an admittance without which one could not legally practice medicine within a hospital. Her case being such, Dr. Ford industriously purchased her now historic, Ïtaliante-style Victorian in 1911, wherefrom she established a private home-based practice.

For half a century, Dr. Ford served a diverse client base of more than 37 nationalities, which included American Indians, African-Americans, poor White-Americans, and immigrants of numerous descents who were either turned away from hospitals for lack of documentation or their inability to communicate in English. Or, whose women preferred mid-wives to the presence of a male doctor during labor.

By Dr. Ford’s hands, thousands of men and women healed of their afflictions, and the diverseness of her clientele made her multilingual in more than seven languages. As notoriety of her medicinal mastery expanded, Dr. Ford became affectionately regarded as “The Lady Doctor,” and to others, “The Baby Doctor.”  She would pioneer many holistic treatments and safely deliver an estimated 7000 babies (1 baby every three days) during her revolutionary career.

After forty-eight years of practice, Dr. Ford penned a final, compelling letter of appeal. She asked that her refusal of admittance to the Colorado Medical Association be overturned, and listed the number of babies she had delivered to date, as well as the many medical services she administered from her home. To this request, the CMA at long last conceded. Dr. Ford was finally allowed admission to the association in January 1950. As well, she was accepted to the American Medical Association.

At age 81, Dr. Ford became ill and eventually succumbed to kidney failure as a result of hypertension in 1952. Wonderfully, her death would mean only the physical cessation of her body for her legacy vibrantly survives in the memories of her patients, within the colorful chronicles of the Five Points community, and by anyone who has derived from Dr. Ford’s success, the courage to persist in the face of extreme injustice.

Most remarkably, Dr. Ford remained a loving woman, unresentful of the hatred and intolerance which those in power upheld for her. Before her death, Dr. Ford was quoted, “When all the fears, hate, and even some death is over, we will really be brothers as God intended us to be in this land. This I believe. For this, I have worked all my life”.

After her death, Dr. Ford’s house stood, emitting a vibrancy of fond remembrance and hope to neighboring homes and businesses for thirty-two years. In 1984, Dr. Ford’s house risked demolition as developers sought to gentrify the area in which it was built. Thus, it was moved at the behest of lobbyists who would see the historical home saved and uniquely repurposed as an exhibition of Black history. And so it was, after renovations, hours of volunteered and sponsored laboring, Dr. Ford’s home was reopened at 3091 California Street, in the heart of the local culture now known as “Five Points,” as the Black American West Museum.

Present Day

Today the museum houses relics of other African Americans’ significance in shaping the Colorado we know today. Their artifacts chronicle periods between 1860 – 1950 (Civil War to WWII). Visitors are permitted reasonably priced admission to a self-guided tour of Dr. Ford’s two-story, five-bedroom home wherein one can find the very room from which she practiced and survey her medical instruments in pristine condition.

Other treasures to discover include original uniforms worn by the Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen, and shoes worn by some of the first freed slaves who migrated to Colorado and settled their families amid their new liberation. Coats which the early Black settlers made of bear fur and buffalo skin, primitive wagon wheels, primeval gardening tools, and archaic weaponry fashioned and utilized by people of color during the wars, are also waiting to impress the interest of history hunters.

Factual excerpts about numerous African Americans’ inventions and successes are posted throughout the home, whose discoveries are as illuminating today as they were groundbreaking in the inventor’s heyday. From these postings, it is learned that Garrett Morgan, (1877), invented the gas mask and innovated the traffic signal to include the yellow (warning) light. And, that Jack Johnson (1878), who at the height of the Jim Crow era became the first Black Heavy Weight Champion, also patented the wrench! Likewise, Lewis Lattimore (1848), invented the carbon filament for the incandescent light bulb. He also drafted the first telephone drawings, with which the inventor Alexander Graham Bell would later apply for a patent.

What’s more is, if you’ve ever wondered how the saying, “The real McCoy” was coined, the museum will proudly introduce you to Elijah McCoy (1844); a Black engineer who patented over 57 inventions during his life, most having to do with the lubrication of steam engines. His most famous patent was the creation of an apparatus which collected oil that dripped from running trains and simultaneously spread it back over the train engine while in motion. This invention allowed trains to run for longer durations without stopping, which saved time and lessened costs. Over time, others tried to emulate Elijah’s design, but all imitations paled in comparison. As such, train owners and operators when seeking to repair or replace engine parts, would tell distributors they want “the real McCoy.”

Many more historical gems await unearthing when and if a seeker would only return home.

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