A Woman to Know: Clara Brown

I go always where Jesus calls me, honey. — Clara Brown

(image via Colorado Virtual Library)


When she was just 18, Clara Brown saw her family torn apart. As an teenage mother in slavery, she watched as her husband, her son and her three daughters were sold on a Kentucky auction block. She remained a domestic servant to her new master, George Brown -- but when he died in 1856, seven years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Clara won her freedom. She finally had the power to reunite her broken family -- she just needed enough money to start searching.

Clara moved far away from the site of her slavery, to Colorado, where she set up shop as a cook for gold miners. As one of the first African American women to settle out West, and the first black woman to live in Denver, she often felt alone, and she struggled to find steady work -- but, she was saving her money.

By 1865, when the end of the Civil War liberated every slave in the country, Clara had $10,000 tucked away.
As word of Clara's family search spread across the West, more and more former slaves began reaching out to her for help in their own searches. She worked with the Colorado government to support black "Exodusters" fleeing the war-torn South, and she helped fund black settlements in Colorado and beyond. Many called her "Auntie Clara."

But Clara never gave up searching for her lost family. Even well into her 70s, she'd periodically travel throughout Kentucky and Tennessee, tracking the paths of her enslaved children. She encountered bad news at every step of the way -- her husband had died in the war, and one of her sons' names had changed so he was untrackable -- but she always returned to Colorado with renewed commitment to her search.

In 1882, at the age of 80, Clara finally got good news: someone found a woman in Iowa who fit the description of Clara's long-lost daughter, Eliza. Eliza was only 8 when she saw her mother sold away; when the two finally saw one another again, newspapers covered the tear-filled reunion. The Council Bluffs Nonpareil reported that as she hugged her daughter, Clara appeared "still strong, vigorous, tall, her hair thickly streaked with gray, her face kind."

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