The 'Mother Teresa' of Five Points

Museum looks to preserve legacy of Dr. Justina Ford

Posted

This story has been updated after the end of the Vote Your Main Street Competition. 

For Dr. Justina Ford, simply doing her job was an uphill battle. Although she was one of the first women to practice medicine in Colorado, she was not allowed to do so in a hospital because she was black and not given membership to the Colorado Medical Society. Instead, Ford set up an office in her Five Points home. Over the span of 50 years she delivered 7,000 babies.

As a doctor, Ford left her mark on the Five Points community. She lived in her home office there until she died in 1952. Now that community is looking to give back.

Board members and volunteers from the Black American West Museum have partnered with Historic Denver to enter a national competition where the prize money will help pay for renovations to Ford's former home and pediatrics office. The museum, at 3091 California St., is also housed inside.

The museum recently underwent a roof renovation, but board member Terri Gentry said staff at the museum also has concerns about the infrastructure and water damage that has happened in the building. The museum won $150,000 in the Vote Your Main Street competition to help pay for some of the water damage, as well as window repair. Because the building is historically designated, something as simple as replacing the windows can often become an expensive job because of the specific materials needed, Gentry said.
 
Working to preserve the house is helping to save a piece of the culture of Five Points. Gentry added that Ford was a woman dedicated to that community. If Ford had a day off, it was rare, she said.
 
“We consider this our largest artifact,” Gentry said. “Everything that (Ford) did, she also had that community as part of it.”
 
Vote Your Main Street is a national competition for historic sites. The top 10 sites get funding that helps to preserve the buildings. Ford’s home was the only Colorado site in the competition this year, and came in 10th place.

The Ford babies

Several of the babies that Ford helped deliver still reside in Denver today, and came together to help spread the word on Vote Your Main Street. Now adults, the Martinez family fondly remembers their doctor and Ford’s role in a neighborhood largely made up of minority families due to Denver’s “redlining” practices at the time. Their uncle lived across the street from Dr. Ford.

Joseph Martinez, 70, was one of the babies that Ford helped to deliver. He said that having her in the community was a big benefit because she not only helped to deliver the babies, but she treated children for colds and other things as well. He called her the “Mother Teresa of the neighborhood.”

“Most families had a lot of children, they were big families, so they couldn't really afford a lot,” he said. “So she fit in just perfectly.”

Mary Marquez, 83, the oldest of the Martinez siblings, said many of the families in the area did not have insurance and had little money to pay Ford for her services. Instead, they paid in what ways they could. Her father for example, often drove Ford to house calls throughout the neighborhood.

“She was an amazing person. Nobody had more than anybody else,” Marquez said. “They didn't pay her with money, a lot of people didn't pay her. A lot of people would give her a sack of apples or something that they made.”

Ford had a lot of influence on Marquez. She helped Ford to deliver her baby brother Joseph at age 13. Because of watching Ford work as a doctor with her siblings, Marquez initially wanted to be a nurse. For a while, Marquez worked at Denver Health. She then went on to work in various roles in the Denver Police Department.

Saving Five Points

For Gentry, renovating the house is about more than preserving the home of Ford. She also hopes to preserve the stories and culture that make up the Five Points community.

Over the years, as Denver has grown, people have been priced out of neighborhoods throughout the city. For decades, Five Points was one of the few places where black families could own a home. Now, Gentry said she has noticed that more and more new developments keep calling themselves RiNo, even though they're located in the Five Points neighborhood.

“I'm concerned that we need to hang on to this history,” she said. “There was so much push and push back and telling folks that they couldn't move east of Downing Street, which is the eastern edge of Five Points.”

Much of Gentry's own family history is displayed on the walls of the Black American West Museum, which was founded in 1971 by Paul Stewart. Her great-grandfather was the first black dentist in Colorado, and her grandmother and aunt were twin jazz dancers during the height of the "Harlem of the West" era, which made clubs such as the Rossonian Hotel famous nationwide.

Development in the area has not only meant that people who once thrived in Five Points are leaving, but some of the buildings that once made up the area's history are being replaced by new ones.

Ford's home is an example of a building that could have been lost if not for the local community. The home used to be located off of Arapahoe Street. In the 1980s the land was sold to a developer that wanted to bulldoze the property.

But when the surrounding community heard the news, they rallied together, contacting Stewart from the museum, as well as then-city councilmember Hiawatha Davis. With the additional support of Historic Denver, which helped to raise $100,000, the house was relocated to its current location. Community members then raised an additional $100,000 to renovate the house. The Black American West Museum opened in the house in 1989.

Alison Salutz, the director of community programs at Historic Denver, said the nonprofit has had a long relationship with the museum. She added that it was really the community which started the process of saving the house, which had not been owned by the Ford family for more than 20 years. “In this case it seems like the community held on to that knowledge,” she said of Ford and her legacy.

Although Salutz said that it is better to keep historic homes or buildings in their original locations, moving buildings in order to preserve them is not unheard of. Historic Denver, a local nonprofit, often works with property owners or developers to try and find the best solutions to keep historic buildings but adapt their usage to new projects.

In the case of Ford's home, it now houses a museum where the first floor is a replica of her doctor's office. Salutz and Gentry both see it as an asset and educational tool to show Ford's life.

“The house is the best way to tell her story today,” Salutz said.

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