She's no done-wrong courtesan, dying of consumption. She's no callow teen, dying of a broken heart. She's no Jezebel, no Valkyrie.
She's a washerwoman, an ex-slave who came to the gold camps of Colorado when she was about sixty years old (birth records for slaves were pretty vague in Virginia at the turn of the nineteenth century, and documentation in early Denver wasn't much better). She moved up to the booming gold camps of Gilpin County in 1860 (or close enough), and soon amassed a tidy sum doing laundry for miners and merchants -- a sum she promptly spent rescuing as many other freed slaves as she could from Kentucky and Tennessee, states where she'd spent her servitude and had lost her own family, including four children. Close to the end of her life, when eighty-year-old Aunt Clara was living almost destitute in Denver, she was finally reunited with a daughter, Eliza Jane.
No, Clara Brown is not your typical operatic heroine, but her story is epic. Even better, it's true. And it's getting two tellings this summer: Once in Clara: an ex-slave in gold rush Colorado, the new book by Gilpin County resident Roger Baker, and again in Gabriel's Daughter: The Story of Clara Brown, an opera by Henry Mollicone that has its world premiere at Central City Opera on July 12. On Friday, June 13, the LoDo Tattered Cover will offer a free multimedia sampling of both.
Baker was the Gilpin County librarian when gambling was introduced a dozen years ago. "Overnight," he remembers, "we were no longer famous for our history, but for something else. Wanting to do something that would help unite the increasingly fractured community, we decided to put on a play that I had found, set in Central City, called The Actress and the Gambling Man. It was a great success, and everyone wanted to do more. I didn't know any more, so I started writing them myself."
He wrote a play about Aunt Clara in 1994. Although it was never produced, it formed the basis of the opera that will debut this summer with Lori Brown Mirabal starring as a far more glamorous Clara Brown.
Since Baker admits he had "freely dramatized incidents" in his original play about Aunt Clara and the opera takes even greater liberties, he decided the real historic heroine deserved a "relentlessly detailed and documented account of the real story." The real story of how a slave survived the loss of her family, finally bought her freedom and made her way west. The real story of what it took for a woman in her seventies to make a living doing laundry in Central City -- carrying tubs up hills at 8,500 feet. The real story of the African-American community that grew in that town, largely because of Aunt Clara.
An August 7, 1866, article in the Rocky Mountain News reported just one adventure in this epic heroine's life: "Mrs. Clara Brown, (colored) better known to old Coloradians as 'Aunt Clara,' came here in '59, and by dint of hard labor and perseverance had amassed quite a fortune. Last October the secret of her economy and industry for all these years came to light, and her object apparent... She has now come back to her chosen home in the mountains, with her sons and daughters, with their husbands and wives, and their children, sixteen in all. She brought them all out at her own expense, arriving last week, and proposes to settle them around her, where she can have a eye upon their movements and future welfare. We will put 'Aunt Clara' against the world, white or black, for industry, perseverance, mercy and filial love.'"
They weren't really Clara Brown's children. But they were God's children, and that was good enough for her. As she told a Republican reporter in 1885, "My little sufferings was nuthin,' honey, an' de Lord He give me strength to bear up under 'em."