Recently, while browsing in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Cary, N.C., I bumped into a book lover who recognized me and asked me if I had ever heard of Clara Brown. For a moment, I thought I knew who he was referring to, but upon further discussion I discovered I was completely mistaken. He clicked on his cellphone to provide me additional information about her and I promised him I would check her out and possibly profile her in Classroom.
I wasn’t sure if there was enough biographical material on her to fill the column, but here’s my promise to Sekou.
Clara Brown was born a slave in Fredericksburg, Va. Jan. 1, 1800, a year that coincides with another notable Virginian, Nat Turner, who was born Oct. 2, 1800. Over the last year or so, with the release of Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” more Americans have learned about the slave revolt Turner led in 1831. They know less about Brown, although Sekou insisted that her life would also be the source of a compelling film.
Brown’s story was typical of African captives. She and her mother were the property of Ambrose Smith, a tobacco farmer. At a very early age, like so many of Smith’s slaves, she worked in the tobacco fields, and when the Smith family moved from Virginia to Kentucky, Brown and her mother moved with them.
Brown was a teenager when she married another slave named Richard in 1818, and they had four children—Richard, Margaret, Paulina Ann and Eliza Jane. The family experience its first tragedy when Paulina Ann, Eliza’s twin sister, drowned. In 1835, the family was jolted again by the death of Smith, who apparently was a benevolent master. More profoundly, his death meant the family was in jeopardy and the entire family, for the Smith family to settle the estate, was sold on an auction block, which sent them in separate directions
Brown, now in her 50s, had a life-changing circumstance when her new owner, George Brown, died. His daughters gave Brown her freedom, which had a proviso that she leave the state, and she departed for St. Louis to work for a merchant. When the family she worked for moved to Leavenworth, Kan., she went with them and later her employer helped her establish her own laundry business. This venture was of short duration and Brown acceded to the clamor that lured so many to the West in search of gold and other opportunities. It was also an opportunity for her to search for her family.
It is not explained why she thought by traveling west she could find members of her family, but before long she was working for a group of gold prospectors on their way to Colorado. According to some reports, Brown became the first African-American woman to settle in Colorado during the gold rush.
“Once she reached Colorado,” according Biography.com, “she moved from town to town, seeking economic opportunities. Settling in Central City, she made money by running a laundry business and became quite a success. Brown earned enough to buy property and invest in mines. She was known to help anyone in need. A pious Christian, Brown also hosted religious services in her home and was a strong supporter of the Methodist Church.” She was also a founding member of the church’s Sunday school and often led prayer services. Because of philanthropic aid and emotional support to those in need, she was dubbed “Aunt Clara.” “I always go where Jesus calls me,” she was often known to say.
Noted writer, Frank C. Young, reputed as the Washington Irving of the Rockies, said about Brown: “In our little community everyone knew everyone else, whatever might be the positive differences in social position. In this connection I might speak of Aunt Clara Brown. She was raised in old Kentucky, and with her won freedom secured after years of persistent, patient toil, when well along in life she joined the procession of gold seekers to Gregory gulch. Through the unusual returns of a mining camp for labor such as hers, she was able to bring out from the old plantation her children and later her children’s children relatives.”
When the Civil War concluded, Brown returned to the South, now in search of her daughter, Eliza Jane. (And Sekou, I couldn’t find any connection between Eliza Jane and the song “Little Liza Jane.”) The rest of her family, she learned were either dead or forever missing. The search proved futile, although she was successful in helping a number of former slaves to start a new life in Central City, Colo., where she had returned.
At the age of 79, she was still actively involved in helping others get their lives together after slavery and the Civil War. Then she received news that relieved her of some her hardships. Her daughter Eliza Jane, she was told, was alive and well and living in Iowa. After more than a half-century of separation, they were reunited.
Brown died in Denver Oct. 23, 1885, but before her death she was honored and inducted into the Society of Colorado Pioneers, mainly because of the role she played during the Colorado gold rush. A coterie of local dignitaries attended her funeral, including Denver’s mayor, John Long Routt, and Colorado Governor James Benton Grant. The Central City Opera House dedicated a permanent memorial chair in her name. She is buried in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery.