Clara Brown was a woman who was born in a time and place where the odds of succeeding were unbelievably stacked against her. She had a long life filled with tragedy, but also a remarkable gift for supporting others and giving back to her community. Clara Brown’s story is inspirational because she continually used what she had to better herself and the larger community.
Clara was born a slave in 1800, in Virginia. She was married at age 18 to Richard, another slave, and the couple had four children. Clara lost a child at the age of 8 when she drowned. Tragedy struck even harder in 1835, when Ambrose Smith, the plantation owner, died. When his estate was settled and divided, Clara and her family were taken to a slave auction and sold to different people. She was purchased by George Brown, from Kentucky.
Clara served as a house slave for George Brown from the age of 35 to 56, when he died. After over 20 years of service, a stipulation in his will granted Clara her freedom, a condition of which she would have to leave the state.
In 1856 the expansion of the Western states was in full swing and many were flocking west to find their fortune. Clara struck out towards Kansas. Since she could not freely travel, she found work as a cook and maid with a family heading west. Once near Leavenworth, Clara found another job as a cook on the way to Colorado. Both the journey to Kansas and the journey to Colorado was long and hard, and Clara had to walk much of the way alongside the wagons.
Clara had heard a rumor that her daughter might be in Colorado, but she did not find her there. Clara had two goals driving her: to find her family and to be able to support herself and live independently. She reasoned that before she would be able to find her family, she would have to accomplish the goal of providing for herself. She opened a laundry service in the mining community at Central City and took all kinds of other jobs, like catering and cooking. Clara diligently saved her money and by the time the Civil War ended, she had saved an astounding amount of $10,000. She was 65 years old.
Clara invested her money in mines and property and created a passive income that allowed her to focus her efforts on other passions: namely, finding her family. Clara also became central to the mining community she lived in. She was a well-admired midwife and nursemaid, a strong supporter of the local churches, and gave money to many causes.
Now that Clara had the right to travel freely, she set out to her true passion once more. When she began to look for her family, she met failure again and again. Clara traveled to Kansas and returned without success. However, she paid the passage for 16 other former slaves to join her in Colorado. Although Clara supported all members of the community, she paid a considerable amount of attention and resources to supporting members of the African-American community.
Clara learned that her husband and one daughter had died. She heard no word of her son Richard. But at the age of 82 years, she reunited with her daughter Eliza Jane in Iowa. They had been separated for 57 years.
Clara died at the age of 85, in 1885. Most of her funds were gone by the time she died because she so vigorously gave back to her community. Clara was believed to be the first African-American woman in the Colorado Gold Rush. Shortly before her death, she became a member of the Society of Colorado Pioneers. Her funeral was attended by the mayor of Denver and the governor of Colorado. She has a memorial chair at the Central City Opera House. Clara has memorials in the state capitol, the Methodist Church that began meetings at her house, and was even the subject of an opera called Gabriel’s Daughter.
All of the acclamation that Clara has received was because of how deeply kind and caring she was. When she was a newly freed slave, she had nothing to offer but kindness, patience, and her willingness to work hard. Those traits are made even more special when you consider the many tragedies she faced. At the end of the day, no matter what had happened in her life, she still found it within herself to always be kind first.
Clara was smart enough to invest and manage her money, multiplying it quickly. She was considered a very wealthy woman before she liquidated her assets to search for her daughter and to give to charitable causes. While many African-Americans were just beginning to shake off the shackles of slavery, Clara had already put herself in a position that she could lift many other people up with her. Her story is inspirational for so many different reasons, but the most simple one is this: don’t give up, and do the best with all of the resources that you have.