When Alice Clark Brown told her family she was going to leave college and join the circus in 1972, they were shocked. But after catching “the showbiz bug” as a child in Washington Park, she decided she was going to see the world, said her sister, Anna Clark.
See the world she did, touring as the first Black woman in the Blue Unit of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. When she returned home to Chicago, she started a career marked by creativity and drive that loved ones described as a want to always be “ripping and running.”
Clark Brown died June 6 of cardiopulmonary illnesses at her home in Oak Park, said her husband, Geoff Brown. She was 68.
Born Alice Clark in the Washington Park neighborhood of Chicago in 1952, Clark Brown attended local schools before graduating from DuSable High School. Described as an “introverted child,” Anna Clark said Clark Brown “blossomed like a flower,” becoming a jazz singer, an actress, a poet and a writer. Her passions were anything creative and fun, her family said.
Geoff Brown, a former Tribune associate managing editor, and Alice Clark Brown celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary June 4, two days before her death. The two were introduced when both were working at the Johnson Publishing Co. headquarters in Chicago, and credit Anna Clark for the start of their relationship. Every year on June 4 they toasted to their “Anna-versary.”
While working as an Andy Frain usher as a teen, Clark Brown caught the eye of a Ringling employee and asked for an audition with the circus — despite no professional dance experience or training. According to Geoff Brown, the first audition went horribly, but Clark Brown persuaded a dancer to help her practice, and weeks later she was formally given the job as an aerialist for the traveling circus.
A trailblazer in the legendary circus called “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Clark Brown experienced her share of racism on the road in the 1970s. She found bugs in her food at a stop in Florida and was not served at all in Texas. But she told her husband the opportunities she had while on the road as a dancer — meeting celebrities, touring the country and even being interviewed by Barbara Walters — outweighed the negatives.
“I think the circus is fun and I’m glad to be here,” Clark Brown told a Philadelphia Daily News journalist in 1972. “Not only for myself, but for Blacks in general. It is important that they be represented in every aspect of American life.”
She spent her days traveling across America, flying through the air, making friends with her “circus family” and meeting up with her sister along the way. They would explore the cities together whenever Clark Brown’s schedule would allow, with the duo meeting up in hubs like New York City, Baltimore, Houston and San Antonio, Anna Clark said.
After returning home and starting her family, Clark Brown taught herself piano, sang in open-mic clubs and acted in plays in the area while balancing care for her son and daughter…
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