The broad brushstrokes of Denver’s history barely touch on the Black women who came to this once rough-and-tumble frontier town and made their own way.
Discover where you can learn more about these women around town.
Dr. Justina Ford, is best known as Colorado’s first African-American female physician. She was born in Illinois and graduated from medical school in Chicago before moving to Denver in 1899 with her husband. Although she could get a license to practice medicine, she was prohibited from practicing in a hospital or joining the Colorado Medical Association.
This pioneering doctor decided to see patients in her home at 2026 Arapahoe St. and later at 2335 Arapahoe St. It’s estimated that she delivered about 7,000 babies during her career! In 1950 she was admitted to the Colorado Medical Association, but remained the only female African American physician in Denver. She died in 1952.
Today, Dr. Ford’s original home has been moved to 3091 California St. and is the home of the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center. This museum tells the stories of Black cowboys, soldiers, blacksmiths and more.
Dr. Ford was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame posthumously.
Clara Brown came to Denver in 1859 after being freed by her third slave-holding owner in Kentucky. However, she was separated from her husband and four children in the process. She is believed to be the first Black woman to cross the plains during the Gold Rush, according to the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.
Living in Central City, Brown established the first laundry business and began saving money so that she could be reunited with her family. She grew her business and earned enough to begin freeing other slaves and bring them to Colorado. Eventually she was able to find one daughter and a grandchild and bring them to Colorado.
Known as “Aunt” Clara to many who knew her, Ms. Brown is memorialized with a chair at the Central City Opera House and in a stained-glass portrait in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver.
MADAM C.J. WALKER
Madam C.J. Walker, neé Sarah Breedlove, moved to Denver in 1905, and was played by actress Octavia Spencer in a Netflix series about her life as America’s first self-made female millionaire. Originally from Louisiana and born to freed slaves, Mrs. Walker became orphaned at 14, married for the first time at 18, and worked long days as a cook and laundress in St. Louis after being widowed. When her hair began to fall out from the stress of her life, she turned to a hair growing product that in turn inspired her to start her own business.
She moved to Denver and married Charles Joseph Walker, which is when she changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker. Her company, Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was very successful and she developed a “Walker System” training program for her company’s employees and stylists. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, she was the first female self-made millionaire in America.
Visit the Madam C.J. Walker Park in the Whittier neighborhood at 1900 E. 30th St. where interpretative signs tell the life story of this woman.
To learn about more Black women who have had an impact on the state’s history, visit the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library (currently closed for renovations), the History Colorado Center, or go online to the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.