The Sad Story of the ‘White Negro Girl’

The other day, I was doing some online research on a topic I’ll write about later this summer, when I happened upon these advertisements for a sideshow act called “The Albino, or White Negro Girl.”

The ads are dated 1864, 1866 and 1868, and each includes a photo of Henry and Helen Walker. According to the ads, Henry and Helen are “twin brother and sister, offspring of colored parents.”

Helen is obviously albino. Unfortunately, at the time, she would have been considered a “curiosity,” an “amusement,” something to be stared at for a fee.

In the earliest photo, the twins are 8 years old. They stand side by side, dressed in the finery of the day. Helen wears a massive bow on her head. Her hands are clasped in front of her. She looks stunned. Her brother, on the other hand, almost smiles.

The 1868 photo, advertising an appearance at Burnell’s Museum in Pittsburgh, also features an older, white man. He is standing behind the children, a hand on each twin’s shoulder.

Again, Helen’s hands are clasped in front of her and she wears what looks like the same big bow on her head. Henry doesn’t smile and stares into the camera. In my opinion, they both look sad.

The man in the photo is likely John Burnell, a showman who had museums in St. Louis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and possibly other cities. His museums exhibited curiosities: bearded ladies, “The Mer-Man,” “The Armless Lady” and, as advertised in The Pittsburgh Gazette on Nov. 23, 1868, the “white and black twins.” No doubt, these are the Walker children.

Thanks to a comment made on the website Sideshow World, where I found the photos, I was able to learn more about Helen and Henry.

The 1860 U.S. Census for New York City lists 4-year-old Helen — called “Ellen” in the census — and brother Henry living with their mother, Phoebe Walker. Phoebe is described as a 36-year-old, mulatto washerwoman. The children also are mulatto. All were born in New Jersey.

No father is listed. Maybe Phoebe was a single mother; maybe she was a widow. Without more research, it’s impossible to know. Another question is, how did Helen and Henry end up traveling the country with Burnell?

During my research, I kept stumbling upon references to parents who “sold” their children to showmen like Burnell. Maybe that’s what happened to Helen and Henry.

Maybe their mother sold them to Burnell because she was in a desperate financial situation. Maybe she let Burnell take them out of love, thinking they would have a better life and more opportunities. Maybe Phoebe died and Burnell found the children in an orphanage.

According to an online commenter, Helen’s great-grandson, Helen grew up and later went by the name “Nellie.” She married three times, first in 1872, when she was about 16 years old. Her first husband, Charles Price, also was albino. She is buried in Ohio.

Also, the commenter didn’t even know Helen had a brother until he saw the photos.

As for what happened to Henry, the 1870 census lists him as a 14-year-old “domestic servant” living in the Burnell household in Pittsburgh. I have yet to find a record of Henry after that.

I wonder if the children ever saw their mother again.

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7 thoughts on “The Sad Story of the ‘White Negro Girl’

  1. I am currently preparing a power point presentation on Nellie as she preferred to be called. She was married three times and outlived five of her six children. She was a remarkable and intelligent woman. Despite her difficult start and lots of tragedy, she lived a productive life and was even involved in the suffragette movement.

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    1. So good to hear from you, Ed! I would love to see the Powerpoint sometime. Nellie’s story is a remarkable one. Were you ever able to find out what happened to her brother? Thanks for your comment!

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      1. Thanks for writing back. It will be a few months preparing in my spare time – first use of Powerpoint (using a generic version). Hopefully, it won’t be to amateurish. We hope to try it out first on a church group this fall. We have lots of documents about her, but the presentation will be more high points and some pictures. It would be great to find what happened to her brother but we are not optimistic. Henry Walker is a pretty everyday name. We have been researching Nellie and Charles for over 20 years,including a lot of travel. With the internet, you never know what will pop up. My great grandfather on the other side was an itinerant farmer and preacher. Someone posted one sentence from a newspaper in Nebraska around 1890. That clue led to closure on him and a great research trip to a small town in Nebraska. My wife is responsible for us getting into family history.

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