Today, most African-American westerners live in the region's cities. The origin of these contemporary communities lies with the rise of the black urban population during the nineteenth century. In 1885, as black cowboys trailed cattle from Texas to Dodge City, or black homesteaders grew wheat in Kansas, far more African-American men and women moved to Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles in search of jobs in the urban economy.
By 1910, the combined black population of the five largest western cities was only eighteen thousand: just one-fifth of the number living in Washington, D.C., at the time. In the big cities and smaller towns like Topeka; Salt Lake City; Virginia City; Nevada; and Helena, Montana, the newcomers established churches, fraternal organizations, social clubs, and even fledgling civil rights organizations. In their new hometowns, male and female migrants were employed as personal servants. Black men also worked as hotel waiters, railroad porters, messengers, cooks, and janitors. Some entrepreneurial African Americans operated barber shops, restaurants, and rooming houses.
Most black migrants to Colorado settled in Denver; by 1870, 56 percent of the state's African-American population lived there. One of the first was Barney Ford, who had come from Virginia in 1860. He worked as a barber and restaurant owner until he built the Inter-Ocean Hotel in 1874. For many years it was "the aristocratic hostelry of Denver." Ford later opened another hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming. But most of the black men who came to fast-growing Denver were single laborers and construction workers. By the 1890s, middle-class African Americans began to concentrate in the Five Points district, creating a stable, if increasingly segregated community.
By 1900, black Denver boasted three newspapers, nine churches, one hotel, various restaurants and saloons, a funeral home, and a drugstore. Its professional class included two doctors, three lawyers, and numerous musicians. By 1906, Sarah Breedlove had arrived from Louisiana and married newspaper reporter Charles Walker. She became Madam C. J. Walker; her nationally marketed line of beauty products would make her one of the nation's most successful African-American business entrepreneurs.