She was born, Nellie Brown, the daughter of Charles & Martha (Runnels) Brown. Her father was a shoemaker turned barber/hairdresser. In the 1850 census, Nellie along with her parents and siblings, are listed as mulatto, which would indicate that both of her parents were from bi-racial backgrounds.
Through both direct research and secondary evidence, I believe that Nellie’s great-grandfather probably was Peleg Runnels, a soldier of the American Revolution, and a member of the famed 1st Rhode Island Regiment.
Two online sources have already well-documented Nellie’s career–the Dover Public Library (quoting the book, African American Concert Singers before 1950 by Darryl Glenn Nettles), and “Let Freedom Ring! Four African-American Concert Singers in Nineteenth-Century America,” by Sonya R. Gable-Wilson. For the most part I won’t repeat their research.