Originally Published February 18, 2010
Clara Brown is the epitome of self starting women in Denver, earning the affectionate nickname of Aunt Clara. Through her efforts, many folks in the Denver area got a start, even some who became prominent businessmen.
Born into slavery in 1803 in Virginia, Clara was sold several times, and had the heartache of having her husband and four children sold away from her as well. In 1856, Clara got her freedom in Kentucky when her owner, George Brown, died, having given her freedom in his will. However, state law required emancipated slaves to leave the state, so Clara went to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. While it is not clear what she did there during the next three years, in 1859 she talked her way into a Pikes Peak bound wagon train as cook and laundress.
Upon her arrival in Colorado, she went to Cherry Creek (Denver’s first name). She worked for a while as a baker and helped found the Union Sunday School. In 1891, she moved toCentral City and bought a cabin, with the intent of running a laundry. Business went so well, she eventually bought seven houses in Central City, running a laundry, a boarding house, a hospital and her house was the first home of the first Methodist Church in Central City. She rapidly became known as the woman who was willing to help anyone who came through with good intentions, giving them a place to stay and even sometimes a financial stake to get started. She especially took in blacks and Native Americans.
One of the men Clara helped get a start was Barney Ford, who came west to start in gold mining, and became a prominent black businessman. When other hotels in surrounding towns refused him a room, Clara Brown rented him a room.
By this time, Clara Brown was well into her 60s, and still moving. She continued to expand her holdings, not only owning the homes in Central City, but 16 lots in Denver, as well as property in Boulder and Georgetown. She took on business partners in her laundry business, and by 1865, she had amassed a fortune of $10,000. But her charity work never stopped. She gave money and her own efforts to help build the first Protestant church in the Rockies, gave money to build a Catholic church, but her heart was still with her family. She offered a reward of $1000 for information on her daughter, Eliza Jane, an amount that was exceptionally large for its time.
Not gaining any news, Clara took it upon herself and traveled to back to Kentucky post Civil War in hopes of finding some of her immediate family. In this, of all the endeavors she’d undertaken, she failed. But she didn’t return to Denver alone – she brought back with her 25 former slaves- men, women and children, some of whom may have been other relatives – and helped them get settled and started in Denver, including getting an education for those who wished it. Throughout the years, Clara Brown funded several more groups relocating from the south into Denver and Colorado, helping them much as she had the first group.
Into her late 70s, and with her money almost run out through her philanthropic efforts, Clara got word from an old friend who had traveled to Iowa that her daughter Eliza Jane had been found; she was a widow now, with the last name Brewer. Clara borrowed money from friends for a train ticket to Council Bluffs to be reunited with her daughter. They returned together and settled in one of Clara’s Denver properties and continued to aid others.
In 1884, the Colorado Pioneers Association changed their rules and admitted her as their first female member for all of her efforts. In 1885, Clara Brown died, and was honored by the association, who arranged and paid for her funeral. Her funeral was well attended, not only by those she’d helped in the community, but by community leaders; Mayor John Routt and Governor Benjamin Eaton attended, and her long time friend, Reverend E.P. Wells exhorted the crowd to emulate Clara and “reflect upon her unexampled benevolence.”
Today, a plaque on the St. James Methodist Church in Central City commemorates her beginning this same church in her own home, and a chair in the Denver Opera House is named for her, to denote her contributions to the founding of Colorado and Denver.
Clara was once quoted in a local newspaper as saying, ”I always go where Jesus calls me, honey.” And her life and efforts shows she did indeed.