One of the most noted Black women of the West was Clara Brown. In 1859, during the Colorado Gold Rush, she moved to the mining town of Central City, Colorado, just west of Denver, where she opened Colorado’s first commercial laundry business. For her philanthropic efforts, she was often called the “Angel of the Rockies.”
Brown was born into slavery right around the turn of the 19th century in Virginia. She married Richard, an enslaved carpenter, and they had four children–Richard Jr., Margaret, and twins Paulina Ann and Eliza Jane. Sadly, Paulina Ann died in childhood. When her owner Ambrose Smith died in 1835, Clara along with her husband and children were sold to various slave owners and with the exception of one of her daughters, she never saw her children or husband again. Clara was purchased by George Brown from Kentucky, hence the surname “Brown.” When George Brown died in 1857, his heirs granted Clara freedom and she migrated to Colorado by way of Fort Leavenworth, KS, and St. Louis, MO, working as a midwife and cook, all the while searching for her missing family.
According to A to Z of American Women Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs by Victoria Sherrow (2002), Brown founded the first commercial laundry business in Colorado and also ran a business selling meals to the settlers, using the profits to invest in real estate and mines. She then used those earnings to help formerly enslaved persons relocate to the western United States. Within a few years, shrewd investments and hard work made Brown a wealthy woman. According to Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls by Tonya Bolden (2017), Brown had accrued over $10,000 by the time the Civil War had ended in 1865. When the Colorado Pioneers’ association was incorporated, Brown was extended an invitation– the first woman to be given the opportunity. Her interest in promoting civic institutions aided in establishing the community as a law-abiding town.
She eventually relocated many of her relatives from Kentucky to Colorado and assisted in finding jobs for them. Despite suffering devastating losses such as fires that destroyed many of her properties, she never stopped helping others in need. Unfortunately, Brown never reunited with her family except for daughter Eliza Jane and granddaughter Cindy, with whom she was reacquainted three years before she died on October 23, 1885.
‘Aunt’ Clara Brown, an aged colored woman, noted for her charities, and as being the only female member of the Colorado Pioneers’ association, died in Denver on Sunday evening.” — October 28, 1885 The Democratic Leader
A tribute to Brown and her life is on display at the Opera House in Central City and at the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver. She was inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame on January 27, 2022. There are many books (even an opera!) held within the Library of Congress’s collections that speak of her life and career.
“AUNT CLARA BROWN,” Savannah Courier (Savannah, TN), January 7, 1886.
- Search Chronicling America* to find more newspaper coverage of Clara Brown, women leaders and entrepreneurs, and more.
- “Aunt” Clara Brown; Story of a Black Pioneer by Kathleen Bruÿn (1970).
- Clara Brown: African-American Pioneer = Clara Brown: Pionera Afroamericana by Suzanne Frachetti (2011).
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Click here to subscribe to Inside Adams–it’s free!