Built in 1890 at 2335 Arapahoe Street in Denver, the Justina Ford House served for forty years as the home and office of Colorado’s first black woman physician. In 1984 the house was moved to save it from demolition, and after renovations it opened at 3091 California Street as the new home of the Black American West Museum. In 1998 a statue of Ford was erected across the street at the Regional Transportation District’s Thirtieth and Downing light rail station.
Justina Ford’s House
What is now known as the Justina Ford House was originally built in 1890 on Arapahoe Street in the Curtis Park neighborhood of Denver. The house was a simple two-story rectangular box of red brick with an Italianate façade on a stone foundation. When the house was built, Germans, Irish, Jews, and other European immigrant groups were settling the neighborhood, and the Ford House’s first owner was a Jewish Denverite named Isaac Kohn. Kohn’s son, Samuel E. Kohn, also lived in the house; in 1898 he cofounded the American Furniture Company, now known as American Furniture Warehouse, which he ran until his death in 1943.
Isaac Kohn sold the house by 1902, the year Ford came to Denver. Born in Illinois in 1871, she graduated from Hering Medical College in Chicago in 1899 and practiced briefly in Alabama before moving to Colorado. She received her Colorado medical license in October 1902, becoming the state’s first black woman doctor.
Ford settled in Curtis Park, which in the early twentieth century was shifting to a more heavily black population. After moving several times during her early years in Denver, by 1912 she had established a successful practice and bought the former Kohn house on Arapahoe Street from Morris and Fanny Abromovitz. For the next forty years, she lived in the house and saw patients in a room on the first floor. By the time of her death in 1952, she had become a well-respected member of the Denver medical community, estimated to have delivered more than 7,000 babies in her fifty years in Colorado.
Rebirth as Black American West Museum
After Ford’s death, the area around her house declined as the end of racially restrictive housing covenants made it possible for middle-class blacks to move out of Curtis Park and Five Points. In 1982 a private developer acquired the block where her house was located and planned to clear the whole area to make way for a parking lot and other development. Local residents, led by Moses Valdez, lobbied to delay demolition to allow them time to figure out how to save the Ford House. The developer agreed to donate the house to a nonprofit if the nonprofit would cover the costs of moving it to a different location. Meanwhile, the Ford House was the only building left standing on its block.
Meetings between the developer, the community, Historic Denver, and the Black American West Museum led to a plan in which Historic Denver would pay for the Ford House to be moved to the east side of the Curtis Park neighborhood, where it would be renovated and used as the museum’s new home. In February 1984, beams were placed under the house so that it could be jacked up, placed on a wheeled platform, and towed about a mile to 3091 California Street. There, the house was renovated, and its original wood porch was reconstructed using historical photographs.
In 1989 the Black American West Museum, which had had no permanent home since Paul Stewart founded it in 1971, opened in the relocated and renovated Ford House with roughly 1,500 artifacts on display. The house still serves as the museum’s home and is easily accessible via the Regional Transportation District’s Thirtieth and Downing station, which opened across the street in 1994 and added a statue commemorating Ford in 1998.