African-American Soprano and “Queen of Song”: Dover New Hampshire’s Nellie (Brown) Mitchell (1845-1924)

Print of Nellie E. Brown, circa 1878, James > Trotter, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books, NYPL Digital Library

Print of Nellie E. Brown, circa 1878, James Trotter, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books, NYPL Digital Library

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.

Nellie Brown grew up and attended the local Dover New Hampshire schools. Her musical career spanned 1865 to about 1908. Several sources state she was classically trained with a local voice teacher named Caroline Brackett, and that she began singing in the local churches, quickly becoming a lead soloist due to her lovely voice. By 1879 her performances were also on stage, and her popularity led her to be hired to sing by predominantly white churches. “Let Freedom Ring,” states that Nellie attended both the New England Conservatory and the New England School of Vocal Arts in Boston, receiving a degree. [See that document for a detailed biography].

The New York Age newspaper of May 1926 stated, “Mrs. Nellie Brown Mitchell of New Hampshire began to attract attention by her charming rendition of English, Italian, French, Scotch, and Irish songs.”

From the 1880s through the early 1900s she was frequently employed to sing at churches, on stage, and for private parties. In the 1880’s she toured America’s west and south. “The range and magnificence of Mme. Mitchell’s voice was marvelous, and frequent passages possessed a wonderful mellowness and sweetness….No musician or love of the beautiful in the human voice should forego the pleasure of hearing her.”–Nashville (TN) Daily Union, June 4, 1886. “She drew a good-sized audience of both races.” That same year the New York Freeman newspaper called her the “Queen of Song.”

In March of 1889 The Times newspaper of Philadelphia (10 March 1889) announced “Nellie Brown Mitchell, the colored prima donna, who has recently returned from a tour of the Southern states says that her race is making much greater progress there than in the North.”

Another newspaper, the Independence Daily Reporter in 1887 stated, “Mme. Nellie Brown Mitchell is another musician with a mechanical turn of mind. She has invented and patented two or three appliances now in common use by musical instructors.”

Charles L. Mitchell, husband of Nellie (Brown) Mitchell

Charles L. Mitchell, husband of Nellie (Brown) Mitchell

Nellie married Charles L. Mitchell, a Civil War veteran from an esteemed African-American family of Hartford CT. She died in Boston MA in 1924. They had no children. Nellie’s partial genealogy is shown below.

Although there are research gaps in the family tree, I believe that she was the grand-daughter of Peleg Runnels, and great-granddaughter of patriot Peleg Runnels of Alton NH and Rhode Island. The latter was granted a pension for service in the famed 1st Rhode Island Regiment, and his name appears on the Portsmouth, Rhode Island monument commemorating the service of that military group.


"The Colored Prima Donna," newspaper article from The Tennessean (Nashville TN) on 2 June 1886.

“The Colored Prima Donna,” newspaper article from The Tennessean (Nashville TN) on 2 June 1886.

Black Entrepreneurs of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

In Freedom’s Birthplace: A Study of the Boston Negroes, by John Daniels

Let Freedom Ring! Four African-American Concert Singers in Nineteenth-Century America, by Sonya R. Gable-Wilson

(Racial) Stereotype: A Visual Studies Blog


Peleg/Pelek Runnals, b abt 1747; d. 1832 prob Alton NH; reportedly a slave whose “Myster” enlisted in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, and served two years. He married possibly 1777 to Martha –. (She is mentioned in his pension papers). His pension documents state he enlisted in the Spring of 1777 for two years. This should probably state 1778 instead, and that he participated in the Battle on Rhode Island. His name can be found inscribed on the memorial at Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
[From Pension papers]
“Pelek Runnels sometime in the spring of the year 1777 was placed by his Meyster in the company commanded by Captain Alexander Hopkins and regiment commanded by Colonel Christopher Green, this regiment was composed mostly of blacks, he don’t know whether they were considered as belonging to any particular line or no, he served mostly on Rhode Island the condition upon which he was placed in said corps by his meyster was that if he would serve two years in said Service he should then have his liberty or Freedom that he continued to serve in said corps of the United States in service…. that he was in the battle on Rhode Island in 1778….”
*Above probably was the spring of 1778 not 1777*
Peleg Runnels, [Runals] RI service
wife Martha – colored
married 1777? Salem MA [per widow]
Died 11 September 1832 per widow [died 11 Nov 1833 or to that period]
Rochester > Alton in 1789
adult child James
7 or 8 children
1790 New Durham Gore [Alton NH]
Jonth Runnells 3 0 6
?Jack Runnells 1 0 1 5
[Pelek, Peleg Runnals, wife Martha]
In 1818 indigent, selectmen letter stating same
1830 Alton, Strafford Co. NH
lists Peleg Runnals but no check marks for numbers
Peleg Runnels
Peleg (“Pelek”) Runnels, of New Durham Gore (Alton) receiving from Daniel McDuffee “five acres of land, more or less, beginning on Merrymeeting river,” etc., “July 2, 1796.” He may have lived in that vicinity till near “Oct 5, 1835,” and thus have been identical with “Peleg Runnals, late of Alton,” whose “Dower” at the last date “was appointed to his widow, Martha Runnals.”
From: A Genealogy of Runnels and Reynolds Families in America, by Moses T. Runnels, listed as “Another isolated personage is found, from the Strafford Records.–”
Names inscribed on monument to Black Regiment
Black Patriots of Rhode Island
State of New Hampshire, Strafford SS Court of Sessions
On this 6th day of January 1824 personally appeared in open Court/being a Court of Record for said County of Strafford so constituted by the Laws of the State of New Hampshire, Peleg Runnals, resident in said County, aged 72 years who being first duly sworn, according to law, on his oath makes the following declaration, in order to obtain the provision made by the Acts of Congress of the 18th of March 1818 and the 1st of May 1820 that he, the said Peleg Runnals, enlisted for the term of two years sometime in the spring of the year 1777 in the company commanded by Capt. Alexander Hopkins in the regiment commanded by Colonel Christoper Green on the regular continental establishment; that he continued to serve in said consecutive years when he was discharged from the said service in the State of Rhode Island.
Schedule: two pigs, one old horse worth not more than five dollars. & some small articles of house hold goods and a hovel in which I live but I do not own any land. [his mark] Peleg Runnals. His wife aged 60 years. Peleg his son aged 20 years, two daughters one aged 18 & one aged 25, one of which is very much out of health.
They fought bravely but were unfortunate, by Daniel M. Popek claims this was likely a fraudulent pension application.
MONUMENT in Portsmouth Rhode Island
Names Inscribed
Children of Peleg & Martha (?) Runals:
1. James Runals
2. daughter b abt 1799
3. +Peleg Runnels/Runnall, b abt 1804; prob m. Elizabeth –.
4. daughter, b abt 1806

Peleg Runnell, b abt 1804 NH, died before 1850; probably m. Elizabeth —. She was b. abt 1800.  In 1850 living in the household of her daughter, Martha.
1850 Newmarket NH Census shows “Runnels, Peleg, 21 W Barber” living in house-hold of Henry Smith, Hotel Keeper. [so b abt 1829 NH]
Children of Peleg & Elizabeth (?) Runnells:
1. +Martha Ann Runnells, b abt 5 June 1828 Alton Corner NH
2. Peleg Runnels, b abt. 1829 NH. In 1850 living in Newmarket NH.

Charles J. Brown b. abt 1826 in Boston MA, d. 20 March 1895; m. 14 Nov 1843 in Newburyport MA to Martha Ann Runnell(s), dau of Peleg (probably) & Elizabeth (?) Runnells/Reynolds. She b abt 5 June 1828 in Alton Corner NH and d. 12 Jan 1901 in Boston MA, (24 Sherman Street) age 72y 7m 7 d, widow of Charles J. Brown. Buried Dover NH, Pine Hill Cemetery
Charles J. Brown m. 14 Nov 1843 in Newburyport MA to Martha Ann Runnells. His occupation cordwainer
1850 US Census > NH > Strafford > Dover
(all Mulatto)
Charles J. Brown 26 MA Barber
Martha A. Brown 24 NH
Charles J. Brown 6 NH
Martha A. Brown 3 NH
Ellen E. Brown 0 NH
Elisabeth Reynolds 50 NH
1870 US Census > NH > Strafford > Dover
[all listed M for mulatto
Charles J. Brown 42 NH Barber 4000/1300 [b abt 1828]
Martha Brown 46 NH
Charles Brown 26 NH barber
Eugene L. Brown 18 NH attending school
Ellen E. Brown 20 NH at home
Edward E. Brown 20 NH attending School
Edward E. Brown 11 NH attending school
Freddie Brown 8 NH attending school
Edna E. Brown 6 attending school
Elizabeth Runnells 68 New Hampshire [b abt 1801-2 NH]
1875 Dover NH City Directory
Brown Chas. J. hairdresser, Morrill’s new blk. Franklin
Brown Chas J. jr. hairdresser, bds C.J. Brown’s Cedar
Brown Eugene L hairdresser bds Chas J. Brown’s Cedar
1880 US Census > NH > Strafford > Dover > 86 Cedar Street
Charles J. Brown self M 55 MA mulatto [b abt 1825 MA] shaving hair-dressing shop
Martha A. Brown wife F 54 NH mu [b abt 1826 NH]
Edward E. other F 21 nh mu [b abt 1859 NH]
Frederick E. Brown son M 20 NH mu son [b abt 1860 NH]
Edna E. Brown dau M 16 NH mu dau [b abt 1864 NH]
Libbey, Virginia B F 20 Servant Virginia
1888-1895 Dover NH City Directory
Brown Chas. J. hairdresser, 484 Central ave. h 12 Cedar
The Colored American (Washington, DC) 3 November 1900
Miss Edna Athertta Brown, daughter of Mrs. Charles J. Brown of Dover NH and Rev. Powhattan Bagnall were united in marriage at high noon at the residence of her sister, Mrs. Nellie Brown Mitchell on Sherman Street. There were relatives and friends included in the gathering of guests which filled the prettily decorated parlor. The ceremony was performed by Rev. Dr. Albert Plum. The bride was elegantly gowned in pearl grey mousseline de soie over pearl grey taffeta with trimmings of rich lace, and wore a beautiful picture hat. The couple were attended by Mr. Fred Dickerson of Newport as best man and Captain Charles L. Mitchell. Many costly and beautiful presents were received. Mr. and Mrs. Bagnall will enjoy a wedding tour through the South and at its conclusion will reside in Paterson, NJ.
The Afro American, June 4, 1927
TOPSFIELD MASS. The casket containing the body of the late Rev. Powhatan Bagnall was hurled from the hearse of the undertaking establishment of Baseil F. Hutchins, when the funeral car skidded and struck a telephone pole here, last week.
Children of Charles J. & Martha A. (Runnells) Brown:
1. Charles J. Brown, Jr. b. abt 1844 Dover NH
2. Martha A. Brown b abt 1847 Dover NH
3. +Ellen E. “Nellie” Brown b 1850 Dover NH
4. Eugene L. Brown b abt 1852 NH, died 24 July 1875 Boston MA ;barber
5. Edward Everett Brown, b July 1858 Dover NH; d. 1919
6. Edna E. Brown b c1862-64 Dover NH; m. 24 Oct 1900 in Boston MA to Powhatan Bagnall, son of Robert & Nancy (Smith) Bagnall. He b. Richmond VA. Noted Clergyman. He was b. Oct 1866 in Virginia. She a vocal teacher. Their daughter Elinor Marcia Bagnall was b. 22 Sep 1904 in Boston MA. In 1918 living in Boston MA. He died in 1927 (see notice above). In 1930 Edna Bagnall was living in Cambridge MA with daughter Ellinor M. Kinkead and her son Ethan Kinkead (age 3, b abt 1927 MA. At this time Ellinor has an artist studio.
7. Frederick E. “Freddy E.” Brown, b 17 June 1861/2 in Dover NH [7th child], died 1 Jan 1932 in Dover NH. Buried Pine Hill Cemetery. He married 16 April 1887 in NH to Lulu G. Watson, dau of Perley B. & Anna M. (?) Watson. She was b. 1868 in Newmarket NH
8. Orrin S. Brown, b. 26 Nov 1868, stillborn, Dover, NH.

Ellen E. “Nellie” Brown Mitchell [this story is about her see likeness and biography above], daughter of Charles J. & Martha A. (Runnels) Brown, was born in 1845-50 in Dover NH, and died January 1924 in Boston MA. She married abt 1877 to Charles L. Mitchell, son of William M. & Clara (Green) Mitchell. He was b 10 November 1829 in Hartford CT and died 13 April 1912 in Boston MA [24 Sherman Street]. They are both buried in Dover NH.
Her bio
November 15, 1866 Centralia Sentinel (Centralia IL) page 4
The two colored men elected to the Massachusetts, Legislature are a Mr. Walker, from the Third Ward of Charleston, and Charles L. Mitchell, from the Sixth Ward of Boston. The latter is a native of Hartford, and a printer, having learned his trade in the office of the Charter Oak, an Abolition paper published by Wm. H. Burleigh. He was working at his trade in Boston when the war broek out, and when Massachusetts led the van in enlisting colored troops, joined the Fifty-fifth Regiment as a private. He was rapidly promoted for bravey and meritorious service, and was one of the few colored men to whom the rank of Lieutenant was given. He lost a leg from wounds received in battle. Returning to Boston he received a fitting recognition of his serves and sufferings for his country in the Union nomination to the Legislature from the Sixth Ward of Boston, the wealthiest in city or State, and containing in its limits more finely educated men than any other of equal population that we know of. A younger brother of Mr. Mitchell, a very intelligent and worthy man.
November 3, 1866 Connecticut Courant (Hartford CT) page 2
The Republicans of the sixth ward, in Boston, have nominated Charles L. Mitchell, a colored man, for the Legislature. Mitchell is a native of the city, where his parents now reside. He is a printer by trade, and served his time with Wm. H. Burleigh, in the office of the Charter Oak–an abolition paper which Mr. Burleigh published in this city for several years. Mr. Burleigh subsequently sold out to Mr. John D. Baldwin of the Worcester Spy who published the paper for some time under the name of The Republican. Mitchell worked for Mr. Baldwin as compositor for several years, and was considered an excellent workman and very quick type-setter. He worked at his trade in Boston when the war broke out, and when Massachusetts called on her colored men for aid, he was one of the first to enlist. He lost a leg in the service, and was promoted for meritorious condct at one of the principal battles before Richmond. The people of Boston have now nominated him for the State Legislature….”
May 1, 1869, Connecticut Courant (Hartford CT) Page 2
Lieutenant Charles L. Mitchell, formerly of the 55th (colored) Regiment, has received an appointment from Collector Russell to the inspectorship formerly held by the Rev. J.C. Lovejoy. Mr. Mitchell is an intelligent colored man, and was a gallant soldier. The appointment is one eminently “at to be made.” –Boston Transcript.
November 15, 1866, Salem Register (Salem MA) page 2
Charles L. Mitchell, the colored soldier elected to the Legislature from Ward 6, BOston, is armly praised by his old schoolmaster, who writes that he was born at Hartford, Conn., that “he is of one of the best families of color in that State,” and that his father is deacon of a church at Hartford.”
1880 US Census > MA > Suffolk > Boston > 190 Northampton Street
Mitchell Nellie Mu F 30 wife Keeping House NH MA NH [b 1850]
Mitchell Chas L. Mu M 32 custom house clerk CT CT CT
May 5, 1888 Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland OH) page 3
THE PHONETERION, a device designed to control the tongue in vocal culture, is a patent of Charles S. Mitchell, husband of Mme. Nellie Brown-Mitchell, the celebrated Boston soprano soloist and vocal teacher. Many pupils are unable to control the tongue which, with some, interferes and prevents the emission of a full, free tone, by a natural tendency to pull back, constricting the passage of the vocal column, thus causing it to give out a pinched throaty tone instead of the much desired free tone. The phonetorion secures the back of the tongue, thus aiding the student in the practice of certain technical exercises for voice development. Musical professors recommend it; it is also adapted to wants of surgeons for depressing the tongue in an examination or operation to the throat or mouth of a patient.
[living at same house address at Peter Bagnall, clergyman b VA
1910 US Census > MA > Suffolk > Boston > 24 Sherman Street
Mitchell Charles L. Head M Mulatto 80 m1x 33 yrs CT CT own income
Mitchell Nellie B. wife F mulatto 60 m1 33 0 ch 0 living NH MA NH [b 1850]
24 February 1910, New York Age, NY NY
Hartford Veteran Retires
Hartford, Conn., Feb 22–Charles L. Mitchell, eighty years old, of Boston, who has been in the government service forty-four years, retired from service recently and voluntarily, as he desires to pass the last years of his life free from the cares of active labor. It was in the Civil War that Mitchell had an opportunity to win his greatest honors, he enlisting and serving in the Fifty-third Massachusetts Volunteers. His service at the front came to a halt at the battle of Honey Hill, where he had a foot crushed by a cannon ball, which would necessitated its amputation. Mr. Mitchell’s wife is Madame Nellie Brown Mitchell, the widely known Boston vocalist. Mr. Mitchell was a Hartford boy, born and brought up here. He has a brother, Theodore P. Mitchell, living here, and also several other relatives.
April 14, 1912, Boston Herald, page 5
Obituary: Charles L. Mitchell
Capt. Charles L. Mitchell, one of the oldest civil war veterans in Boston and the first negro in the North to be elected to a state Legislature, is dead at his home in Roxbury. He as born in Hartford Ct. in 1829, and served in the 59th Massachusetts infantry during the war. His right foot was taken off by a cannon ball at the battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina. He had come to Boston in 1853 and gone to work on William Lloyd Garrison’s paper, The Liberator. He was a pallbearer at the funeral of Garrison. In 1866 he was elected a member of the General Court of Massachusetts. Judge Russell appointed him, in 1869, to the office of inspector of customs, the first negro to the position, which he held for 40 years. He was a member of Benjamin Stone, Jr., pose 68, G.A.R. He leaves a widow.
The Portsmouth Herald, Portsmouth NH, 9 January 1924
Appeared Here Many Times in Concerts and Was Great Favorite With Local Audiences
Numerous friends of Mrs. Nellie Brown Mitchell in this city will be pained to learn of her death in Roxbury where she has resided i recent years. She was a former resident of Dover and widely known as a singer and teacher of vocal music and has many times appeared in concerts and church choirs in Portsmouth and was always a favorite with audiences here. She has been soloist in Bromfield Street Methodist, People’s Temple, Berkeley Street Church and Grace Methodist Church in Haverhill for 10 years. She was pianist and direstress of the Woman’s Relief Corp, 68, of Roxbury. She leaves a sisters, Mrs. Edna Brown Bagnall, and a brother, Fred E. Brown. The funeral service were (sic) held at her late home, Tuesday morning at 10:30 o’clock. The body was brought to Dover for interment in the family plot in Pine Hill cemetery.
Sunday, January 6, 1924, Boston Herald, (Boston MA) Page 22
OBITUARY: MITCHELL–In Roxbury, Jan 5, Nellie Brown Mitchell, widow of Charles L. Mitchell. Funeral services at her late residence, 32 Whiting St on Tuesday. Jan 8, at 10:30 A.M. Relatives and friends invited to intent. Interment at Dover, N.H.
no children

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4 Responses to African-American Soprano and “Queen of Song”: Dover New Hampshire’s Nellie (Brown) Mitchell (1845-1924)

  1. Amy says:

    I learn so much from your blog! I’d never heard of Nellie before, and I am impressed that back then a non-white performer would have had such widespread popularity in the majority population. I also never knew that mulatto meant that the child had two mixed-background parents; I just thought it meant mixed race generally. What a crazy world we live in, dividing people in such arbitrary ways.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Amy, so glad you enjoyed this story. And yes, in fact in the United States at least race determined many things including the right to vote, to run for public office, where you lived, shopped, etc. If people studied genetic genealogy they would realize that there is only one race, and that truly we are cousins beneath the skin. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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