Clara Brown (c. 1800–1885)
Clara Brown was born a slave in Virginia in 1800. During her childhood, Clara Brown was sold several times eventually ending up in Kentucky. At the age of 18, Clara Brown married her husband Richard, also a slave. Clara Brown and her husband had four children. Three girls named Margaret, Paulina Ann and Eliza Jane and one son named Richard. At the age of 35, Clara Brown’s owner died and her entire family was split up and sold off one by one at auction. Clara Brown was purchased by one George Brown and worked as a house slave until Brown died when Clara was in her 50’s. Clara Brown was then given her freedom by George Brown’s daughter. Clara Brown had heard rumors that her daughter, Eliza Jane, had moved west after she had been sold years earlier. Clara Brown decided to search for the family that she had lost years before. Blacks were prohibited from use of the stagecoaches, so, Clara Brown worked as a cook for a group of prospectors travelling west and walked most of the 700 miles to Denver. Not finding her daughter in Denver, Clara Brown moved further on to Central City. where she opened a laundry business for gold rush miners. Clara Brown collected whatever gold dust came out of the miners pockets and saved and made more money by cooking and cleaning. By the end of the Civil War, Clara Brown had saved over $10,000. Being a keen businesswoman, Clara Brown went on to invest in mining claims and real estate. During this period of time, Clara Brown also helped injured miners, acted as a midwife and helped former slaves find work, thus earning her the name Aunt Clara Brown.
Clara Brown continued to search for her lost family in the coming years, traveling to Kentucky and Tennessee in her quest. Although she didn’t find her children, she did find extended family members and paid for them to come to Colorado. In 1879, Clara Brown, acting on behalf of then Colorado Governor Pitkin, assisting black families in the « Black Exodus » from slavery. She helped them move to Colorado and get jobs in various mining camps. Clara Brown financed many of these families with her own money.
n 1882, Clara Brown heard rumors of a black woman named Eliza Jane living in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Clara Brown immediately traveled to Iowa to see if this woman was indeed her Eliza. Miraculously, it was, and Eliza returned to Colorado with her mother and lived with Clara Brown until her death in 1885. The story of Clara Brown and her daughter’s reunion made newspapers throughout the west. In 1885, “Aunt” Clara Brown passed away in her sleep just three years after being reunited with her daughter. Crowds flocked to her funeral. The mayor of Denver and the governor of Colorado even attended the ceremony. The Colorado Pioneer Association made Clara Brown their first African-American member, and funded her entire funeral. Clara Brown’s name and reputation have lived on in the years since her death. A chair in the Central City Opera House was installed in her name in the 1930s. This is an honor reserved for well-respected community members. In 1977, Clara’s life and achievements were commemorated with a stained glass portrait of her in the state capitol building. She also has a plaque on the St. James Methodist Church in Central City, which explains that her home served as the first church in the area.
People say that Clara Brown went from being a slave to being an angel, but neither word is accurate. She was an experienced black woman who lived with purpose and passion. She recognized the power of community and in building relationships. She found her way out of a life of enslavement to establish a new life in Colorado. Her success in business gave her the chance to share her wealth with friends and family. She worked to develop the black community in Colorado. The discovery of her daughter, Eliza, turned her lifelong dream into reality. In her own time of crisis, favors and kindness were lovingly returned to