Many spoke about her enchanting qualities, but it was her singing that was most spellbinding. James Weldon Johnsons assessment was that the upper range of her voice was full of bubbling, bell-like, bird-like tones. It was a rather magical thing Florence Mills used to do with that small voice in her favorite song, Im little blackbird looking for a bluebird, and she did it with such exquisite poignancy as always to raise a lump in your throat. Florence Mills - see below for photo creditFlorence, the youngest of three daughters of John and Nellie (Simon) Winfrey, was born on January 25, 1895.
There are many facts of her early life that are not known for sure. It is known that both her parents were born in slavery in Amherst County, Virginia and worked in the tobacco industry until they had to move because of economic depression in the tobacco industry. They moved from Lynchburg to Washington, D. Where John was a day laborer and Nellie took in laundry. The highpoint of her childhood was her appearance in the road company production of Bert Williams and George Walkers Sons of Ham.As a result of her success, the traveling white vaudeville team of Bonita and Hearn hired her. Florence then moved to New York with her mother and sisters and by age fourteen had organized a traveling song and dance act with her sisters known as the Mills Sisters. From then on, Florence Mills was the name she used. Just before World War I she moved from Vaudeville to Cabaret and was hired at the Panama Café on State Street by Ada "Bricktop" Smith. She formed the Panama Trio, a singing group, along with Bricktop, Cora Green and others, including Tony Jackson on piano. That did not last long, though, because the Panama Café was thought of as a center of vice and was closed down. While there she met Ulysses "Slowkid" Thompson, who was known as an acrobatic, tap, and "rubberlegs" dancer. They became romantically involved, got married (her second marriage), and were together until her death. Because of her many successes, she received an offer to replace Gertrude Saunders as the lead in Shuffle Along, music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake and book by Flourney E. The show opened in New York in the spring of 1921 and was an immediate hit. Langston Hughes believed Shuffle Along initiated the Harlem Renaissance and inaugurated the decade when the Negro was in vogue.
It was Mills' dancing that completely stunned the audiences. Mills popularity didnt mean race and racism were no longer realities; Irving Berlin said if he could find a white woman who could put over a song like Mills, he would be inspired to write a hit a week. After Shuffle Along Lew Leslie, a white promoter, hired Mills and Thompson to appear nightly at the Plantation Club. The revue featured Mills and a wide range of black talent including visiting performers like Paul Robeson.In 1922, Leslie turned the nightclub acts into a Broadway show called The Plantation Revue. It opened at the Forty-eighth Street Theatre on July 22. With these recent successes, Florence became the black female performer with the potential of breaking into the racially restricted show business establishment. At this time, Sir Charles B.
Cochran was looking for attractions for the London stage. He took the Plantation Company to the Pavilion in the spring of 1923 even though there were still racial problems. "Nigger Problem Brought to London" ran the headline of one of Hannen Swaffers articles in the Daily Graphic. The Show Cochran devised was called Dover Street to Dixie and was cast by an all English cast in the first half and Mills and the Plantation cast in a variation of their standard routine in the second half. In 1923, upon her return to New York, Florence received an invitation to appear as an added attraction in the Greenwich Village Follies annual production.This was the first time a black woman was offered a part in a major white production. She was also offered a contract to join the Ziegfield Follies but turned it down.
She decided to stay with Lew Leslie to create a rival show with an all black cast. She felt she could best serve the race by providing a venue for an entire company. That same year Leslie took her to London in Dover Street to Dixie, which became Dixie to Broadway when it opened in New York on October 29, 1924. Also around that same time, Duke Ellington was beginning his career as a composer.
One of the first musical portraits he wrote was written for Florence Mills. It was called "Black Beauty". In 1926 Leslie produced Blackbirds, first in New York, then in Paris. Mills had achieved her goal of creating a major all-black revue with the opening of this show at the Alhambra Theatre in Harlem. The show then moved to Londons Pavilion Theatre and enjoyed 276 performances.The Prince of Wales was said to have seen the show more than twenty times and Mills became so popular that she became to London what Josephine Baker was to Paris. Exhausted from so many straight performances, Mills went to Germany to rest but her condition did not improve. On October 24, 1927 she entered the hospital for the operation. The doctor had very little hope for her recovery and one week later, on November 1, 1927 Mills died. Mills saw her work as a crusade on behalf of racial understanding. She believed that every white person pleased by her performance was a friend won for the race. Born January 25 in Goat Alley, a Washington DC slum, to ex-slave parents. Wins talent contest for Buck and Wing dancing.
Entertains diplomatic set & is given gold bracelet by British ambassador's wife. Makes professional debut as guest star'Baby Florence' in Avery & Hart presentation of popular Williams & Walker show The Sons of Ham, singing Aida Overton Walker's hit'Miss Hannah from Savannah.
Florence joins touring company of Vaudeville star'Bonita', as a dancing Pick (Pickaninny). She is arrested as an underage performer & institutionalized for a time. The family moves to New York, eventually Harlem, & Florence goes to normal schooling for a while. Florence joins her two older sisters, Olivia & Maude, playing black vaudeville and local Harlem theatres (including the famous Lincoln) as'The Mills Sisters'. A starring role in a Cecil Mack (R C McPherson) production causes leading Black critic Lester Walton to say Florence will one day have her name up in lights.
The Mills Sisters tour widely (Chicago, Indianapolis, and south); Florence continues with Olivia after Maude marries comedian Hamtree Harrington, until Olivia retires. Florence teams up with Kinky Caldwell in a successful traveling'sister' act but it breaks up when Caldwell marries. Florence moves to Chicago and becomes a member of the Panama Trio, with Bricktop and Cora Green. They play the notorious black-and-tan Panama Cafe, along with such jazz notables as Alberta Hunter, Glover Compton & Mezz Mezzrow. Bill'Bojangles' Robinson, one of the Trio's admirers, gives tap lessons to Florence.
A shooting scandal causes the Panama cafe to be closed by the police. The Trio continues to play local venues for a while. Florence joins The Tennessee Ten, a very successful black troupe with a talented jazz band whose dancing director, Ulysses'Slow Kid' Thompson, is destined to become her lifelong partner. The Ten achieve a high profile as support for leading Vaudeville and Ziegfeld Follies star Nora Bayes in her own show, The Songs We Love to Sing.
Kid Thompson is drafted for World War I overseas service, in France. The Panama Trio re-forms, with Bricktop replaced by Carolyn Williams. Legendary ragtime pianist, Tony Jackson (composer of'Pretty Baby') makes up the Panama Four for one engagement before the girls go on a lengthy and very successful tour of Canada and the West, finishing up in San Francisco where Carolyn Williams marries. Florence re-joins Kid Thompson and the Tennessee Ten. They are hugely successful in a show called Folly Town, which also included Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion) and Jack Haley (The Tin Man).
Florence plays Harlem's famous Lincoln Theatre under her own name, billed as "Harlem's dainty, sweet singer". The sensational Black musical Shuffle Along ('I'm Just Wild About Harry','Love Will Find a Way') takes Broadway by storm.Knowing how talented Florence is, and sensing a new era in black entertainment, Kid Thompson becomes Florence's manager, they move to New York and get married. Bricktop finds her a job at Barron Wilkins's Club, singing from table to table, while they wait their chance.
Promoter Lew Leslie builds an all black show around Florence at the Plantation restaurant on Broadway. She becomes the darling of fashionable society, featuring in Vogue & Vanity Fair. Billboard notes she has her name in lights on Broadway. An even hundred of them. Famous British theatre impresario C.
Cochran brings Florence's show to London where, despite some nasty racist opposition, she scores a huge success. Said Cochran: That night, and every night she appeared at the London Pavilion, Florence Mills received an ovation each time she came on stage - before every song she sang. This is a tribute which in my experience I have never known to be offered to any other artist.
In my humble opinion Florence Mills is one of the greatest artists of our time. Triumphantly back in America, Florence is invited to guest star in the Greenwich Village Follies in October. A group of white actors stage a walk-out in protest against higher billing for a black performer but eventually back down.Florence's new show Dixie to Broadway is a phenomenal success on Broadway and on the road. Her new theme song'I'm a Little Blackbird looking for a Bluebird' is widely recognized as a thinly veiled protest against racial inequality. In June Florence heads the bill at the Palace Theatre, the first black performer to achieve vaudeville's highest honor. Late in 1925, her new show Blackbirds opens, destined for France & England. Florence makes a sensational concert appearance at New York's Aeolian Hall, singing 4 pieces specially written for her by her friend, dean of African American classical composers William Grant Still, and conducted by Eugene Goossens, in front of a distinguished audience including Toscanini and George Gershwin. Blackbirds plays the Alhambra in Harlem, Florence's farewell to her friends and supporters before departing for France & England. Blackbirds is a huge success in Paris and Ostend.
Florence tops charity bill along with Maurice Chevalier. Shares billing at Les Ambassadeurs with Paul Whiteman's orchestra. Blackbirds opens at London Pavilion in September.All London is seized by Blackbirds mania and Blackbirds parties become the rage, with high society folk entertaining the performers. The Prince of Wales is a frequent audience member, singing along with Florence. She speaks out on racial issues and promotes the NAACP.
In April Blackbirds reaches its 250th performance at the London Pavilion. The strain of two shows a day plus matinees and charity benefits has taken a heavy toll on Florence & cast members can see she is visibly exhausted and ill. In August Blackbirds tours the provinces but after the Liverpool engagement doctors tell Florence she must stop & get medical attention or she will die.
Florence & Kid Thompson go to Baden Baden, Germany for a rest cure. In spite of her serious condition, she flies to Berlin to help friend Bricktop, in legal trouble over contractual matters. In September, Florence & Kid arrive back in USA where they are feted with banquets and special ceremonies. She postpones medical treatment because her mother is ill.
On October 25 Florence enters hospital for treatment of a tubercolosis-related ailment but her condition has already deteriorated and even a second operation can't save her. Knowing she is dying, she sings songs to cheer her nurses & manager Lew Leslie. Her last words were I don't want anyone to cry when I die.I just want to make people happy, always. November 6: Florence Mills funeral was the largest Harlem had ever seen.
There is a legend that a flock of blackbirds flew over the funeral cortege. In Porter Grainger's words "She has gone to join the songbirds in Heaven".
Elaborate plans to erect monuments to her all fizzled out. Florence Mills (born Florence Winfrey; January 25, 1896 November 1, 1927),  billed as the "Queen of Happiness", was an African-American cabaret singer, dancer, and comedian known for her effervescent stage presence, delicate voice, and winsome, wide-eyed beauty. A daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Nellie (Simon) and John Winfrey, she was born Florence Winfrey in 1896 in Washington, D. She began performing as a child.
At the age of six she sang duets with her two older sisters, Olivia and Maude.  They eventually formed a vaudeville act, calling themselves the Mills Sisters.  The act did well, appearing in theaters along the Atlantic seaboard.
Florence's sisters eventually quit performing, but Florence stayed with it, determined to pursue a career in show business. She joined Ada Smith, Cora Green, and Carolyn Williams in the Panama Four, which had some success. She then joined a traveling black show, the Tennessee Ten, in which in 1917 she met the dance director and acrobatic dancer Ulysses "Slow Kid" Thompson (18881990), to whom she would be married from 1921 until her death. Mills became well known in New York as a result of her role in the successful Broadway musical Shuffle Along (1921) at Daly's 63rd Street Theatre (barely on Broadway), one of the events marking the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance.
She received favorable reviews in London, Paris, Ostend, Liverpool, and other European venues. She told the press that despite her years in vaudeville, she credited Shuffle Along with launching her career.
After Shuffle Along, Lew Leslie, a white promoter, hired Mills and Thompson to appear nightly at the Plantation Club. The revue featured Mills and a wide range of black artists, including visiting performers such as Paul Robeson. In 1922, Leslie turned the nightclub acts into a Broadway show, The Plantation Revue. It opened at the Forty-Eighth Street Theatre on July 22.The English theatrical impresario Charles B. Cochran brought the Plantation company to London, and they appeared at the London Pavilion in spring 1923 in a show he produced, Dover Street to Dixie, with a local all-white cast in the first half and Mills starring with the all-black Plantation cast in the second half. In 1924 she headlined at the Palace Theatre, the most prestigious booking in vaudeville, and became an international star with the hit show Lew Leslie's Blackbirds (1926).  Among her fans when she toured Europe was the Prince of Wales, who told the press that he had seen Blackbirds 11 times.
Many in the black press admired her popularity and saw her as a role model: not only was she a great entertainer but she was also able to serve as an ambassador of good will from the blacks to the whites... A living example of the potentialities of the Negro of ability when given a chance to make good.
Mills was featured in Vogue and Vanity Fair and was photographed by Bassano's studios and Edward Steichen. Her signature song was her biggest hit, "I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird". Another of her hit songs was "I'm Cravin' for that Kind of Love". Exhausted from more than 300 performances of the hit show Blackbirds in London in 1926, she became ill with tuberculosis. She died of infection following an operation at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City, New York on November 1, 1927.
She was 31 years old. Most sources, including black newspapers, such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, and mainstream publications, including the New York Times and the Boston Globe, reported that she died of complications from appendicitis. Her death shocked the music world.
The New York Times reported that more than 10,000 people visited the funeral home to pay their respects; thousands attended her funeral, including James Weldon Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and stars of the stage, vaudeville and dance. Honorary pall bearers including singers Ethel Waters and Lottie Gee, both of whom had performed with Mills. Dignitaries and political figures of both races sent their condolences.
 She is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, in Bronx, New York. Her widower, Ulysses Thompson, a native of Prescott, Arkansas, was a dancer and comedian, having learned his trade in the tough world of circuses and traveling medicine shows in the early years of the century. He subordinated his career to hers, acting as her manager, promoter, minder and companion. After her death, he continued performing, traveling around the world, including appearances in China and Australia, until the late 1930s.
He later married Gertrude Curtis, New York's first black woman dentist (1911) and the widow of the lyricist Cecil Mack (born as Richard Cecil McPherson). Thompson outlived both of his wives; he died in 1990, at the age of 101, in Little Rock, Arkansas. Mills is credited with having been a staunch and outspoken supporter of equal rights for African Americans, with her signature song "I'm a Little Blackbird" being a plea for racial equality, and during her life she broke many racial barriers.
After her death, Duke Ellington memorialized Mills in his composition "Black Beauty". Fats Waller also memorialized Mills in a song, "Bye Bye Florence", recorded in Camden, New Jersey, on November 14, 1927, featuring Bert Howell on vocals with organ by Waller; "Florence" was recorded with Juanita Stinette Chappell on vocals and Waller on organ. Other songs recorded the same day include "You Live On in Memory" and "Gone but Not ForgottenFlorence Mills", neither of which were composed by Waller. English composer Constant Lambert - also a friend and champion of Duke Ellington - saw Florence Mills when she performed in Dover Street to Dixie at the London Pavilion in 1923, and again when she visited London a second time in 1926-7 for her show Blackbirds.On her death Lambert immediately wrote the piano piece Elegaic Blues in tribute, orchestrating it the following year. The rising triplet near the beginning (bar 8) is a quote from the fanfare that opened Blackbirds.
A residential building at 267 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem's Sugar Hill neighborhood is named after her. A biography by Bill Egan entitled Florence Mills: Harlem: Jazz Queen was published in 2006, and a children's book, Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up the Stage, by Alan Schroeder, was published by Lee and Low in 2012. Florence Mills House in New York City at 220 West 135th Street was believed to be where Florence Mills lived from 1910 to 1927.
In 1976, the site was designated a National Historic Landmark maintained as a landmark by the National Park Service, but the designation was withdrawn in 2009. Flo-Bert Awards, named in honor of Florence Mills and Bert Williams. Florence Mills, whose name is now almost unknown, reigned over the 1920s as one of the most popular and sensational African American performers of the Jazz Age.
When she sang, her beautiful, birdlike voice momentarily transcended the eras racial barriers and left audiences of all colors enthralled. This striking 1924 photograph of Mills, dramatically lit by a spotlight, highlights Edward Steichens mastery of light.
Mills is wearing a costume from Dixie to Broadway, and her face is animated. A hat conceals her signature slick bobbed hair, which was imitated by Londoners and New Yorkers alike. Mills and actor and activist Paul Robeson were the only two African Americans whom Steichen photographed for full-page spreads in Americas most fashionable magazine, Vanity Fair. This original photograph, the issue of Vanity Fair in which it appeared, and other Steichen photographs are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, now through September 1 in Edward Steichen: Portraits.
Mills was born in Washington, D. She showed talent as a toddler, made her professional debut at age seven, and soon became a fixture on the African American vaudeville circuit. The lead in 1921s Shuffle Along brought Mills instant stardom and success in Harlem. A year later, The Plantation Revue opened on Broadway, exposing Millss talents to the theatrical community at large.Demand for Mills was insatiable and far-reaching, and she performed in Paris and London for the next two years. The revue From Dixie to Broadway, starring Mills, became the first African American musical comedy to play on a Broadway stage. Next came Blackbirds, a revue written especially for Mills, which brought her immense renown throughout Europe. The Prince of Wales saw the show more than sixteen times, calling Mills ripping.
Poet James Weldon Johnson said of Little Twinks, as she was affectionately known, She could be risqué, she could be seductive; but it was impossible for her to be vulgar, for she possessed a naïveté that was alchemic. As a pantomimist and a singing and dancing comedienne she had no superior in any place or any race Black Manhattan, p. She died soon after the operation. Response to her death was overwhelming, with an estimated 150,000 mourners lining the streets of Harlem during her funeral procession. Regrettably, no vocal recordings of Mills exist, and she died too early in her career to establish an ongoing legacy with students.
These factors have caused the once-bright star to fade into near obscurity. The National Portrait Gallerys curator of photographs, Ann Shumard, was immediately attracted to this lively image of Mills when she encountered it in a photography dealers inventory. After researching Millss biography, Shumard recognized the importance of adding the entertainers portrait to the National Portrait Gallerys collection and was able to acquire it for the museum. Florence Mills became the first African-American international star in 1923 when she performed in the theatrical production Dover Street to Dixie. Cochran said of her opening night performance, she owns the houseno audience in the world can resist that.
Years later, Cochran recalled Mills' ability to mesmerize audiences by saying she controlled the emotions of the audiences as only a true artist can. Singer, dancer, comedian Florence Mills was known as the Queen of Happiness.A well-known performer during the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age, Mills stage presence and soft voice made her a favorite of both cabaret audiences and other artists. Mills was born Florence Winfrey on January 25, 1896, in Washington D. Her parents, Nellie and John Winfrey, were former slaves. At an early age, Mills began performing as a vaudeville act with her sisters under the name The Mills Sisters.
The trio performed along the eastern seaboard for several years before disbanding. Mills, however, decided to continue her career in entertainment.She began an act called Panama Four with Ada Smith, Cora Green, and Carolyn Williams. Mills' fame as a performer came in 1921 from her pivotal role in Shuffle Alongi. Mills performed the show and received critical acclaim in London, Paris, Ostend, Liverpool and other cities throughout Europe. The following year, Mills was featured in Plantation Revue.
Russell Robinson and lyricist Roy Turk wrote music that displayed Mills ability to sing jazz tunes. Popular songs from the musical included Aggravatin Papa and Ive Got What it Takes. By 1923, Mills was considered an international star when theatrical manager C.Cochran cast her in the mixed-race show, Dover Street to Dixie. The following year Mills was the headlining performer at the Palace Theatre.
Her role in Lew Leslies Blackbirds secured Mills place as an international star. The Prince of Wales saw Blackbirds an estimated eleven times. At home in the United States, Mills received the positive criticism from African-American press outlets.
The most notable critic said that Mills was an ambassador of goodwill from the blacks to the whitesa living example of the potentialities of the Negro ability when given a chance to make good. By 1926, Mills was performing music composed by William Grant Still. After seeing her performance, actress Ethel Barrymore said, I like to remember, too, one evening at Aeolian Hall when a little colored girl named Florence Mills wearing a short white dress, came out on the stage alone to sing a concert. It was a great and thrilling experience.
After a four-year courtship, Mills married Ulysses "Slow Kid" Thompson in 1921. After performing in more than 250 shows in the London cast of Blackbirds, Mills became sick with tuberculosis. She died in 1927 in New York City after undergoing an operation.
Media outlets such as Chicago Defender and The New York Times reported that Mills had died from complications associated with appendicitis. More than 10,000 people attended her funeral. Most notably in attendance were civil rights activists such as James Weldon Johnson. Her pallbearers included performers such as Ethel Waters and Lottie Gee. Mills is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.
Following Mills death, several musicians memorialized her in their songs. Jazz pianist Duke Ellington honored Mills life in his song Black Beauty. Fats Waller wrote Bye Bye Florence. Wallers song was recorded just a few days after Mills death.That same day, other musicians recorded songs such as You Live on in Memory and Gone But Not Forgotten, Florence Mills. In addition to being memorialized in songs, 267 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem is named after Mills. And in 2012 Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up the Stage was published by Lee and Low. We need to see our mothers, aunts, our sisters, and grandmothers. We need to see Frances Harper, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, women of our heritage. We need to have these women preserved. All of these women are important as role models. Depending on our profession, some may be even more important. Zora Neale Hurston means a great deal to me as a writer. So does Josephine Baker but not in the same way. Yet I would imagine for someone like Diahann Carroll, or Diana Ross. Miss Baker must mean a great deal.
I would imagine that Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith, though they are important to me, would be even more so to Aretha Franklin. Maya Angelou, Black Women Writers at Work, Edited by Claudia Tate (New York: Continuum, 1983). Maya Angelous heartfelt plea for the importance of keeping inspiring role models before the new generation of young African American women could not find a better exemplar than Florence Mills.
Never quite lost to race consciousness, Florence has remained just within the peripheral vision of successive generations, a tantalizing image of something precious, lost but still treasured. While Ms Angelous focus was on women, and women entertainers in particular, Florence Mills can serve as a universal role model, not just for all African Americans but for the world at large. Though she gained fame as an exceptionally talented performer, she is equally fascinating as an intelligent and socially conscious human being. I want to focus on the private side here but first a quick summary of her public career.Born in a Washington DC slum to ex-slave parents. First stage appearance; wins talent contest for Buck and Wing dancing. Makes professional debut as "Baby Florence" in The Sons of Ham. Joins vaudeville star'Bonita' as a pick; is arrested as an underage performer and. Family moves to New York; normal schooling for a while.
Joins her two older sisters playing vaudeville as "The Mills Sisters". Moves to Chicago, forms Panama Trio, with Bricktop and Cora Green.
Joins The Tennessee Ten, whose dancing director, Ulysses "Slow Kid" Thompson. They support leading vaudeville star Nora Bayes.The Panama Trio re-forms when Kid Thompson is drafted for World War I. A lengthy and very successful tour of Canada and the West. Florence re-joins Kid Thompson & the Tennessee Ten in a successful mixed-race show. Called Folly Town that included Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion) and Jack Haley The Tin. She replaces one of the leads in famous Black musical Shuffle Along and becomes. Promoter Lew Leslie builds an all-Black show around her at the Plantation restaurant on. Broadway, the first Black woman to be so featured. Cochran brings her show to London where. Despite some nasty racist opposition, she scores a huge success, becoming first Black. Female international superstar of the century. Back in USA, she guest-stars in the Greenwich Village Follies. Her new show Dixie to Broadway is the first Black show to get a run on Broadway. Heads the bill at the Palace Theatre, the first Black performer to achieve vaudeville's.
New show Blackbirds opens in Harlem destined for France & England. Makes sensational concert appearance at New York's Aeolian Hall, singing songs by. African American classical composer William Grant Still. The Prince of Wales is a frequent audience member. London is seized by Blackbirds mania.In April Blackbirds reaches 250th performance. In August it tours the provinces but after. Liverpool engagement doctors tell Florence, visibly exhausted and ill, she must stop. Performing or she will die. In September, she arrives back in USA to be feted with banquets and special ceremonies.
On October 25 Florence enters hospital for treatment and dies unexpectedly on 1. Her funeral is the biggest ever seen in Harlem.The remarkable public achievements of Florence Mills have been documented frequently, though often inaccurately. I hope to set that to rest with my planned biography. Her private personality, though little known, is equally fascinating. On-stage she was an extrovert who could hold an audience in the palm of her hand, switching them from tears to laughter in the blink of an eye. Off-stage she was a shy, soft-spoken introvert who shunned the limelight. On-stage she was a light-hearted figure of fun and merriment. Off-stage she was a serious thinker about social issues with a passion for self-education.
Her public image was of a highly paid super-star amassing a fortune through secret real estate deals. Media speculation hinted at affairs with White financiers, royalty and nobility. The truth is she was completely devoted to her husband U. Super stars are expected to be haughty prima donnas. Florence was the exact opposite.
Self-effacing and unfailingly polite to all she met from the highest to the lowest. The passionate conviction that drove Florence Mills was her belief she could use her talent for entertainment to help breakdown the barriers of prejudice enmeshing her people. There was no personal bitterness in her hatred of prejudice, just a conviction that it was wrong and illogical. Unlike many of her fellow race members she had experienced positive contact with White people from an early age, having been the darling of the diplomatic set in Washington DC as a tot.
Her later years in Black vaudeville certainly exposed her to all the petty humiliations that were the lot of Black people in those times but show business was one of the most tolerant industries. She enjoyed the appreciation of White audiences and had many friends among White performers. Nevertheless she burned with indignation at the injustices of racism. In an article she wrote for an English newspaper she said.
How absurd it all is how utterly unfair! There is not a coloured man or a coloured woman in existence who does not bitterly resent the sentiment that drives them beyond the pale. If only those who consciously or unconsciously outrage the sensibilities of the Negro knew as I know what wounds they inflict, what suffering and misery they cause, they would view the man of colour from a different perspective. They would know, at any rate, that he has a soul not so very different from their own. They would learn something, perhaps, of the acute sensibility of his feelings, of his childish trust in human nature, of his humility and instinctive generosity.Despite the anger, her views were tinged with an optimism that was shared by many Black people in those times. There was a sense that somehow if they elevated themselves by education and hard work then reason would win out and the White majority would relent. Though things were bad much progress had been made since the demise of slavery.
Reflecting this view, Florence told an English journalist. Down South its still terrible. There isnt slavery any more, - not real slavery but theres something very like it. But its all going to be better.Its all going to be much better. When you think how things were sixty, forty why, even twenty years ago, you can see the difference at once. It isnt only that weve got societies for our people down in the South. Her belief that her own example of talent combined with professionalism and dedication could help win friends for her people fuelled her optimism. In her final message of farewell to the English people, which the NAACP proudly published back home in a press release, she said. To return to my hearts one real and great ache, does personal popularity, enthusiasm and applause count for anything? I had hoped and, in fact, I go on hoping that for every friend I have made in this country, the colored people as a whole have also gained a friend. Britain is a Christian country, surely Christianity knows no color. Because the Creator made some of us different colors be it black, brown or yellow is it in the power of anyone honestly and sincerely Christian at heart to look down on us as something inferior. Black sheep are certainly not to be found among people of one color only. I now return to America, still hoping that my efforts have not been quite in vain. I shall return again, and may those friends I and, I hope, my people have gained not merely remain loyal and true but multiply many times. It was this dedication to the cause of her people that caused Harlem Renaissance literary figure Theophilus Lewis to say, [Florence Mills] always regarded herself as our envoy to the world at large and she was probably the best one we ever had. That she did win friends was dramatically shown by the change in cynical British journalist Hannen Swaffer. In 1923 he wrote such offensive racist material that Florences producer C. Cochran had him physically ejected from the London Pavilion theatre on opening night. By 1927 Swaffer was an adoring fan and an apostle allowing Florence to use his column to spread her message of tolerance. In later years he supported the cause of the Scottsboro Boys in his columns. Florences success in winning hearts and minds in England was due in no small part to her transparently sincere and lovable personality. However, it was also helped greatly by the leaking, towards the end of her stay, of news about her covert charitable work in hospitals and along the London embankment where the homeless dwelt. All very well, you may say But this was all so long ago; why is Florence Mills still relevant as a role model for African Americans today? The intervening years have seen the battle for legal civil rights resoundingly won and yet there are many problems surrounding the issue of race in modern America. For some the answer lies in an angry response and there may be much grounds for anger in the ghettos of big cities and the less affluent underbelly of urban USA.
There are times undoubtedly when injustice must be confronted with strong, even violent, action. Nevertheless, despite whatever problems there may be, I believe Florence Mills gentle but firm determination is a better model in the long run for overcoming social obstacles, and less damaging to the individual psyche, than more aggressive approaches.As Theophilus Lewis said in his tribute partly quoted above, The world must be shown not only that we can produce genius, but that we also possess dependability, stamina and courage. What more could a role model offer? In defence of my claims I should explain how Florence Mills came to be such a significant role model for me personally, a White, male Australian, born in Ireland ten years after her death. From my teen years I was a keen jazz fan with a consequent interest in Black culture, including the poetry and prose of Langston Hughes and novelists like Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison. I knew the music of great Black female singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Adelaide Hall to name but a few.
My favorite musical figure was Duke Ellington. Quite late in my life I heard for the first time Ellingtons Black Beauty and was instantly bowled over. It was the most moving and inspiring piece of music I had ever heard.
Collecting as many versions of it as I could find became an obsession. In addition to collecting versions, I also read avidly anything written about Black Beauty. I soon found it was Dukes tribute to an obscure singer and dancer named Florence Mills, who died tragically young in 1927, leaving no trace via records or films. My curiosity was piqued; who was this person?A new obsession emerged - I must find out everything I could about Florence Mills. A revisit to biographies of Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Lena Horne, Paul Robeson, revealed that they all considered her one of their greatest peers though the amount of information on her was tantalisingly small.
A friend produced a book of old Vanity Fair material that included the first picture I saw of Florence. It was the famous portrait by Edward Steichen, the only full-page picture of a Black person to appear in that magazine in the Twenties. Despite all this I found that there had never been a biography of Florence Mills. Having retired early (aged 55) I had completed a graduate diploma in professional writing and embarked on my first project to do with chess.
Now I decided it was more important to unravel the story of this enigmatic forgotten star of the Twenties. That was the start of a saga that has lasted eight years and is still going.
It soon became apparent the information available from books was pitifully limited, mainly dealing with her later years of international fame and accounts of her extraordinary Harlem funeral. I realized the only way to uncover the full story was to re-trace Florence Mills' steps myself, consulting primary sources and talking to the few people left after 70 years who had known her. I traveled many times, always at my own expense, from my home base in Australia to Europe (London, Paris, Versailles, Brussels, Ostende, Berlin, Darmstadt and Baden Baden), USA New York, Washington D. Atlantic City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Arizona, San Francisco, and Los Angeles and Canada (Calgary), retracing her footsteps.In these places I undertook extensive research on primary sources and visited numerous major historic collections. Tucked away in archives in many of the cities I visited were dusty files and crumbling documents--vital clues to the phenomenal successes and events of Florence Mills' life. In San Francisco, A dog-eared playbill from a 1919 visit by The Panama Trio, with whom she danced and sang. In Baden Baden, Germany, lists of arriving tourists that include Florence and her husband as well as later notorious Nazi leaders. In Harlem's Schomburg Institute, the autographed menu given to Florence by Charles Lindbergh when she danced at his Paris reception after the historic flight. I have uncovered a considerable amount of unknown information about Florence Mills. I have also debunked a number of popular myths. Yet, the truth is much more remarkable than any myth. It shows that Florence Mills was much more than just a very talented entertainer. She was a truly remarkable human being. Hers is a story that cries out to be told. Again in the words of Maya Angelou: Harlem was Paris to the lost generation at the turn of the century. Some of these women, who have never been heralded must be saluted.
And in the words of Charles Blockson, founder and curator of the Blockson Collection at Temple University: [Florence Mills] life represents the missing link of the exciting years of the Harlem Renaissance. It is my ambition to help restore Florence Mills in the public eye and to her own people as a small return for the pleasure and inspiration I have received from Black culture and music. The 1927 Times of London (UK) obituary noted of Florence Mills, There is no doubt that she was a real artist full of individuality and intelligence, and her premature death is a sad loss to the profession. Florence Mills was an internationally-recognized and multifaceted performer who paved the way for other black female stars during the Harlem Renaissance.Born Florence Winfrey in 1896, in Washington, D. To former slaves Nellie and John Winfrey, Mills moved with her parents to New York City, New York in 1905. To help her financially struggling family, Mills and her two older sisters created The Mills Sisters, a dance and singing troupe that performed in theatres in Harlem, New York. The year 1921 marked a triumphant period for Mills. She married Ulysses Slow Kid Thompson (a member of a jazz band known as the Tennessee Ten) and made her debut in the hit musical Shuffle Along, a victorious, all-black cast, musical comedy created by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.
The same year, Mills replaced Gertrude Saunders in the starring role of Ruth Little, which ran for more than 200 performances on Broadway. Her signature performance in Shuffle Along was her rendition of Im craving for That Kinda Love, a love song that became the first of that genre to be performed in an all-black revue on Broadway. Millss star performance helped make Shuffle Along, which is still considered the catalyst of the Harlem Renaissance by many cultural historians, the first successful all-black Broadway show in more than a decade.
Throughout the 1920s, Mills appeared in a number of landmark musical revues, including Plantation Revue (1922), From Dover Street to Dixie (1923), Dixie Street to Broadway (1924), and Blackbirds (1926). In Dixie Street to Broadway, Mills performed Im a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird.The song won her acclaim and led to her next show, the internationally-successful Blackbird Revue, which toured at the London Pavilion, in Paris, France, and other European cities. At the age of 31, Mills became ill with tuberculosis during a tour that included over 250 performances. She died in New York City on November 1, 1927 from an infection after surgery. Three thousand fans attended her funeral in Harlem and thousands more saw her funeral procession as it moved through the black community. HARLEM RENASSANCE FLORENCE MILLS AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTIST PHOTO" is in sale since Thursday, July 9, 2020.
This item is in the category "Collectibles\Autographs\Celebrities". The seller is "memorabilia111" and is located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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