Clara Brown: A Determined Philanthropist Clara Brown was an African-American woman who was a born a slave in the early 1800s. Although she was separated from her family in her mid-30’s due to a slave auction, Brown’s kindhearted nature drove her to serve as a well-respected community leader. She was the first African-American woman to venture to Colorado during the gold rush. Her economic gains were used to aid other former slaves. Clara Brown was born in Spotsylvania, Virginia in 1803. At an extremely young age, she was sold in a slave auction to the Smith family.
There she worked for many years before marrying another man who was also a slave, Richard, at the age of eighteen. Together, the two had four children of their own. As was the general practice of the time, children of slaves were born into slavery. They would begin working just like their parents as soon as they were old enough. One day in 1835, however, Clara Brown’s family was tragically torn apart when her husband and children were all sold to different plantation owners. They were broken apart because their original owner died and had pending dues to fulfill.
Clara was sold to an owner in Kentucky. She worked for this family for about twenty years, tending to her owner’s children while remaining completely unaware of the whereabouts and well-being of her own children. After her own master’s death, Clara Brown was finally freed at the age of 53. As a woman with no support, she set out by herself to find her children in the states of Kentucky, Missouri, and Kansas. She searched for three years but her efforts were fruitless. Despite this, she didn’t give up.
Around this time in history, many people began to flock to Colorado for the Gold Rush. Clara thought that there may be a chance her children had gone there. She set out on the long, gruesome 700 mile journey by securing a job as a cook on a wagon train headed West. When she arrived in Colorado, she had limited funds so she quickly looked for work opportunities. She finally decided to start a laundry service business for the miners. Her business was a success. In a short span of six months, she was able to gather enough funds to invest in real estate in Mountain City, Colorado.
With her funds increasing, she quickly became known as “Aunt Clara” in the community. This was unusual because it was extremely rare for women to be successful in the field of business and even rarer for African American women. She was known for tirelessly providing those who were in need with food, shelter, and care. Clara was so focused on aiding the community that she temporarily forsakes her original goal which was to reunite with her children. When the Civil War ended, Clara returned to the East to continue the search for her children.
She even set up a cash reward of $10,000 for anyone who had news of her kids. This was an immense sum for the time and it highlights just how successful she was in the realm of business despite her giving away so much of her wealth to assist others. Still, her efforts remained fruitless. To distract herself from this sadness, she gathered a number of impoverished former slaves and traveled back with them to Colorado in attempt to set up a better life for them. As she busied herself in community work, Clara also began to look for her children again.
By the time she was in her 70s, most of her funds had depleted due to her immense involvement in local charities, her financial aid to needy families, and her donations to funds aimed at educating young women. At this point in her life, she finally received news of one of her daughters, Eliza Jane. She heard that she was located in lowa so the nearly 80-year-old Clara Brown, traveled to lowa to finally reunite with her daughter. This joyous occasion in her life was followed by another key achievement.
Clara was appointed as the first woman member of the Colorado Pioneer Association. Along with this, she was also granted a stipend for her life-long dedication to helping others. A few years later, in 1885, Clara passed away in Denver Colorado. The entire community mourned the death of “Aunt Clara” but her memory lived on. Almost a hundred years later, the state of Colorado inducted Clara into the “Colorado Woman’s Hall of Fame” to commemorate her service. Clara Brown’s story is inspiring because she was a woman that lost so much in life but still continued to serve others.
She also never gave up what she set out to do. She looked for her children for nearly 50 years, a time in which she could have easily given up all hope. Instead, maintained hope and continued serving other families as she didn’t have one of her own. A woman making these advances was completely unheard of at the time, especially a woman who was a formerly a slave. Clara received no formal education but still was able to figure out how to start, run, and maintain a successful business.