Negro Hill: Official name of spot near Central City finally changed to honor Aunt Clara Brown

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The controversy that broke last fall over Rick Perry's "Niggerhead" sign at a family hunting camp got Roger Baker, manager of Gilpin County, thinking that it was time -- long past time, actually -- to change the name of "Negro Hill." Yes, in 2011 that was still the official name of a spot near the cemeteries just outside of Central City.

And that itself was an improvement over the name that had been used more than a century ago: "Nigger Hill."

"The origin of the name is somewhat murky," Baker wrote in a letter to county residents last October, explaining why he was going for a name change, "but it probably had to do with the lynching on the hill of a black man, George Smith, for the robbery and murder of William Hamblin in Quartz Valley, just over the hill. The crime took place in 1868, and at least a semblance of legal procedure was followed -- in fact, the case was appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court. Still, the crowd at the hanging on February 18, 1870, certainly demonstrated some markedly brutal behavior according to the local paper. While we never want to forget even these unpleasant aspects of our common heritage, there's no doubt that while the execution can never be undone, certainly the offensive name should be rethought."

And last fall, while Perry's explanation of "Niggerhead" proved there were rocks in his head as well as at the camp, Baker started doing a lot of thinking. He studied the mechanism for changing a name, which requires an appeal to the United States Board on Geographic Names, part of the U.S. Geological Survey. And he thought about what name might be a fitting replacement. Simply naming the spot Cemetery Hill might be "too morbid," he said, suggesting that, "as a way of partially redressing this past injustice," it instead be named for one of Gilpin County's most prominent African-Americans

Baker didn't need to do much research to find just such a worthy person. Clara Brown had been born a slave in Virginia around 1803; she was finally given her freedom in 1857 and headed west, landing in Colorado in 1858 and moving to Gilpin County in May 1859, after gold was discovered there. While others hunted for their fortunes in the streams and mines, she built a laundry, and "Aunt" Clara Brown soon became one of Central City's most distinguished residents. Her incredible life story has already been honored with a stained-glass portrait at the Colorado State Capitol; an opera based on her life, Gabriel's Daughter, had its premiere at the Central City Opera in 2003. And she's the focus of a book, Clara: An Ex-Slave in Gold Rush Colorado, that just happens to have been written by Baker. In fact, he stumbled on the references to Negro Hill while working on that

So Baker had no problem crafting a compelling argument for changing the name of Negro Hill to Aunt Clara Brown Hill -- although full names are rarely used, "Brown Hill" wasn't much better than Negro Hill -- and sent off the request. And for once, the feds responded with admirable speed. At its April 12 meeting, the Board on Geographic Names approved the proposal to change Negro Hill to Aunt Clara Brown Hill.

Here's the official entry as it now appears on the Geographic Names Information System:

Aunt Clara Brown Hill: summit; 9,088 ft, in Arapaho National Forest, 0.75 mil NW of Central City, 6.6 mi E of Saint Mary's; the name honors "Aunt" Clara Brown (c. 1803-1885), who was born a slave, then after earning her freedom, moved to Colorado where she operated a laundry, helped found churches, grubstaked young miners, cared for the sick, and invested in real estate. In 1884, Clara Brown became the first woman to be inducted into the Colorado Pioneer Association, and in 1989 into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame.

As a laundress, Aunt Clara Brown would recognize that it takes more than bleach to clear out all the stains of history. But coming clean about the past is a good place to start.

For more on Gilpin County, see "All Bets Are Off," our October 2010 package on 24 hours in the gaming towns of Central City and Black Hawk.

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