Weekly Register-Call | October 30, 2014

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Clara Brown Community Leader and Philanthropist 

Clara Brown was born into slavery near Fredericksburg, Virginia on January 1, 1800. At a young age, she and her mother were sold to a Virginian tobacco farmer who eventually moved to Kentucky.

At eighteen-years-old, Clara married a slave named Richard and together they had four children: Richard, Margaret, Paulina Ann and Eliza Jane. Sadly, at 8 years of age Paulina, the twin sister to Eliza Jane, drowned. In 1835 their owner died and in the process of settling the estate the family took Clara’s family to a slave auction where they were each sold to separate owners in distant locations. A plantation owner from Kentucky sensed Clara’s intelligence and strength and placed high bids to attain her.

When her owner died, Clara was 56 years old and per a stipulation in his will, she was granted her freedom. However, Kentucky law required freed slaves to leave the state and so she hired on as a maid and cook for a family heading to the westward departure point of Leavenworth Kansas Territory.

From there, she was hired to work as a cook on a wagon train headed for Denver. It was a hot, difficult eight-week journey made more uncomfortable by the complaints of a southern man about a black woman traveling with them.

In the Denver area, Clara settled in Auraria where she worked at the City Bakery. She was one of the founding members of the nondenominational Union Sunday school through her affiliation with two Methodist missionary ministers.

Following the tide of miners heading into the mountains, Clara set up the first laundry in Gilpin County in Gregory Gulch. Her laundry service eventually expanded to where she took on a partner and as a result of the growth of her business, her income grew substantially. She invested her earnings in land and mine claims and within several years accumulated $10,000 in savings. At this time, she was reported to have owned 16 lots in Denver, 7 houses in Gregory Gulch as well as property and mines in Boulder, Georgetown and Idaho Springs.

Clara gave generously of herself to those in her community and hosted the first Methodist church services at her house. She helped people in need in any way she could, whether newly settled Euro-Americans or Native Americans. Lovingly called Aunt Clara, her home was a hospital, a home, a general refuge for those who were sick or in poverty.

She was quoted as saying, “I always go where Jesus calls me.”

The Catholic Church and the first Protestant church in the Rocky Mountains were built partly through Brown’s donations towards their construction.

Clara gave of herself unselfishly to anyone who needed her, but she desperately missed her family who’d been torn from her nearly thirty years prior. With the help of friends who could write, she began sending letters asking for any information on her husband and children. She eventually heard that her husband, Richard, and daughter, Margaret had both died. Her son, Richard was lost, but she vowed to find her daughter, Eliza Jane.

At the end of the Civil War, Clara liquidated her holdings to travel back to Gallatin, Kentucky. She didn’t find Eliza Jane, but she helped relatives and others who were former slaves travel to Colorado by train and wagon train and she helped them find work once they were settled. In 1879, she went to Kansas to help former slaves build a community and farm the land.

At eighty years of age, Clara’s funds were depleted due to monies spent on charitable contributions, her efforts to find her family, and having been cheated by real estate agents. She moved to Denver when she could no longer endure the higher altitude and she lived in the home of a friend.

After years of writing letters, Clara heard that Eliza Jane lived in Council Bluffs, and at 82 years of age, she traveled there to meet her. The Council Bluffs Nonpareil reported on March 4, 1882 that Brown was “still strong, vigorous, tall, her hair thickly streaked with gray, her face kind.”

After a lengthy visit in Council Bluffs, Clara returned to Denver with her granddaughter and was later visited by Eliza Jane, who remained with her until Clara’s death on October 23, 1885.

She was buried in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery. Colorado state dignitaries attended her funeral, including Denver Mayor John Long Routt, and Governor James Benton Grant. The Central City Opera House dedicated a permanent memorial chair in her name.

Published October 30, 2014 in the Weekly Register-Call.

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