Dr. Justina Ford (Jan. 22, 1871- Oct 14, 1952) was the first black female doctor in Denver, Colorado. Born Justina Laurena Warren in Knoxville, Illinois to Pryor Warren and Malissa Brisco, she was unconventional from an early age. Her father, Pryor registered for the Civil War Draft in 1863, eager to serve in the United States Colored Troops. Her mother was a nurse, unusual for the times.
Justina followed in her mother’s footsteps with an early interest in medicine, biology, and botany. She dissected frogs at age eight and was always reading, always inquisitive. Her parents taught her not to accept racial or gender limitations.
She applied to Hering Medical School in Chicago and was accepted. Hering was founded by a European, Constantine Hering, who lacked the prejudices against blacks and women that were common. While in medical school, she married John Ford, a Baptist minister.
Justina consistently distinguished herself in her studies and earned her degree and medical license in 1899. She tried practicing in Alabama, but found the opportunities under Jim Crow too limited, and moved to Colorado. When she applied for her Colorado medical license, she was told by the clerk, “I feel dishonest taking a fee from you. You’ve got two strikes against you, to begin with. First of all, you’re a lady, and second, you’re colored.” Ford often referred to this double barrier to her career. In her later years, she said, “I fought like a tiger against those things.”
Justina and her husband located in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver, largely colored due to housing discrimination. It acquired a reputation as “the Harlem of the West”, with jazz halls and coffee bars. Welton Street was home to more than fifty bars and clubs, where nationally known jazz musicians such as Billie Halliday and Duke Ellington performed.
Denied hospital privileges, like most black doctors, she began making house calls and specializing in gynecology and obstetrics. She set up her office in her home, and
“treated anyone who needed medical care, regardless of race, gender, language, citizenship, or ability to pay. Many of her patients were poor whites, African-Americans, and non-English speaking immigrants who were turned away from hospitals. Ford learned multiple languages to help treat her patients. Her patients paid her in goods, services, or money.”Colorado Virtual Library
Little by little, her reputation grew, and in the end, she delivered thousands of babies, of many races. Eventually, she was allowed to practice at the Denver General Hospital and was admitted to the Denver Medical Society.
In 1915, she divorced Reverend Ford, reportedly because he asked her to give up her career. During the next five years, she met and married Alfred Allen, nineteen years her junior. They remained married until her death. She was treating patients up to two weeks before she died in 1952.
In 1985, she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.
“…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.”Justina Ford, National Institute of Health
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