Clara Brown (c. 1803–85) was an ex-slave who became a philanthropist, entrepreneur, and humanitarian in Denver and Central City. She is said to be the first African American woman to have traveled West during the Colorado Gold Rush. While in Central City, she established Gilpin County’s first laundry as well as Colorado’s first Protestant church. She opened her home to freed slaves and hosted church services, which earned her the nickname “Aunt” Clara. Brown was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 1989. In 2012 a hill in Gilpin County formerly named “Negro Hill” was renamed “Clara Brown Hill” in honor of Brown’s contributions to the county’s history.
Clara Brown was born into slavery in Fredericksburg, Virginia, around 1803. She is presumed to have been separated from her father but remained with her mother for her entire childhood. Clara and her mother were later moved to Kentucky to work on a tobacco farm with their Virginian owners. By the age of eighteen, Clara was married to a fellow slave named Richard, and they had four children—Richard Jr., Margaret, and twins Paulina Ann and Eliza Jane. However, Brown was soon separated from her family; Paulina Ann drowned at a young age, and her husband and the rest of her children were sold after their owner passed.
In 1859, at fifty-six years of age, Clara was freed by her owner, George Brown, according to Kentucky state law. Clara’s first and foremost objective was to be reunited with her family, but she eventually found out about their tragic fates. Her husband, Richard, and daughter Margaret had died in slavery, and her son, Richard Jr., had been sold so many times that he was no longer traceable. This left Brown to search for her youngest daughter, Eliza Jane.
In 1859 Clara served as a midwife and cook for a wagon train headed West, eventually bringing her to Denver. She soon relocated herself to Central City, where she established the first laundry in Gilpin County. During her stay, Clara accumulated a large sum of savings and eventually acquired housing and mining properties worth around $10,000 (roughly $1,000,000 today) in both Denver and Boulder. From then on, Clara earned herself the nickname “Aunt” Clara for providing shelter and food for the local townspeople as well as help establish Colorado’s first Protestant church.
The Long Journey’s End
Clara eventually earned enough money to finally start searching for her family. Clara began her search as an official representative for Frederick Pitkin, a Republican governor of Colorado, helping former slaves establish themselves as freedmen and women. Her search first began in Kentucky, and she soon learned of her family’s mostly unfortunate fate. However, she was successful in helping freed slaves reestablish themselves in Colorado. Then, in 1882 Clara located her daughter Eliza Jane in Council Bluffs, Iowa. That same year, Clara returned to Denver with her granddaughter. She was voted into the Society of Colorado Pioneers in 1884. Clara Brown died on October 23, 1885. Her legacy lives on in the City Opera House, Denver’s capitol building, and in Central City, where she has a hill named in honor of her and the rest of Colorado’s black pioneers.
Adapted from “Clara Brown,” Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, n.d.