through Scotland Yard about noon, I saw a large crowd, in the street, &
heard the banjos of some Ethiopian Serenaders. But there were surely female
voices as well as male: and going up, I was astonished to see that two of the
five niggers' were young women. Yes: there were two young women, drest in
fantastic ballet costume, and with shining black faces & necks & hands.
Their heads were bare: their hair decked with network and rolls of scarlet
cloth: they wore pink calico jackets, petticoats of spangled blue, ending a
little below the knee: and red stockings and red boots. One of them came up o
me, when the singing was over, with her tambourine; and earned a sixpence for
her courage in blackening her face. For she and her comrade were both very
decent and modest in behaviour; and were protected by their male companions, if
they needed protection. They were the wives, she said, of two of the men; they
go about with them through the west end, performing always out of doors, &
both in the daytime and at night. They dance as well as sing - and they sang
very well. They wash the black off every night.
I remarked to her that this was the first time that I had ever seen female niggers (except one, & that long ago) singing in the open street. 'Yes Sir' she said 'it's a new thing; but we mean to stick to it.' I watched these two self-made negresses going through the crowd by turns, collecting money after the performance. They did it very quietly and simply; appealing in silence-with not even a smile, for the lampblack varnish disguised whatever good looks they had, so smiles would have been useless-now to some contemptuous swell, who looked another way; now to some honest workman, who made a wry face as he stared at the black girl's face before him and the black hand that took his penny; and now again to the female spectators, who evidently could not understand how any woman could make herself such a fright. ...
Arthur Munby, Diary, 15 April 1863
see also James Greenwood on 'nigger minstrels' - click here