Mills, Florence 1896–1927
Florence Mills 1896–1927
Before her untimely death in 1927, Florence Mills was considered the preeminent female jazz dancer of the Harlem Renaissance. With top billing in musical reviews such as Shuffle Along and Blackbirds of 926, she earned critical praise as a graceful dancer and confident comedienne with a delightful voice. A favorite with African American audiences, Mills also possessed a popularity that crossed over to mainstream Broadway theatergoers as well at a time when color lines were only beginning to vanish. She was nicknamed “Blackbird” herself from her signature song, “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird,” and enjoyed considerable success in Europe as well.
Mills was born on January 25, 1896, in Washington, D.C. at her family home on K Street. Her parents, John and Nellie Winfree, were originally from Lynchburg, Virginia. When Virginia’s tobacco economy worsened, the family relocated to Washington, D.C. and Mills’s father found work as a carpenter and day laborer. The neighborhood surrounding K Street was pleasant and stable, but the Winfrees fell upon hard times and were forced to move to a far more dangerous area of Washington called Goat Alley. Despitethe family’s hardships, Mills showed exceptional talents as a singer and dancer from a very young age.
Mills began entering dance contests at local theaters and won several medals and other prizes. At the age of four, she performed for the first time at Washington’s Bijou Theater. In 1903, she sang “Miss Hannah from Savannah” in the touring production of an African American musical comedy entitled Sons of Ham. The star of the show, an accomplished performer named Aida Overton Walker, taught Mills the song, and soon took her under her wing. Walker’s guidance helped make Mills a stage phenomenon by the age of eight. In 1905 she was hired by a vaudeville company, Bonita and Hearn, and made her professional debut. Because the vaudeville company was operated by whites and played to segregated audiences, Mills, like other black vaudeville performers of the day, often performed in degrading “pickaninny” numbers that fostered racist stereotypes of African American culture.
As a teenager Mills joined with her sisters, Maude and Olivia, to form a touring vaudeville troupe known as “The Mills Sisters.” However, the group enjoyed only minor
At a Glance …
Born January 25, 1896, in Washington, D.C.; died in New York City of paralytic ileus and general peritonitis, November 1, 1927; daughter of John (a carpenter) and Nellie (Simon) Winfree; married James Randolph, c. 1912 (divorced); married Ulysses S. Thompson (a dancer), 1923.
Career: First public performance at Washington’s Bijou Theater, c. 1900; appeared in Sons of Ham, 1903; made vaudeville debut with her two sisters as “The Mills Trio,” c. 1910; made stage musical debut in Shuffle Along, New York City, 1921; made Broadway debut in Plantation Review, 1922.
success. Around 1912 Mills married a man named James Randolph, but the union was short-lived. Tired of the constant travel of the vaudevillecircuit, Mills settled in Chicago in 1915 and began working at the infamous Panama Café. The Cafe, located in South State Street’s red-light district, was notorious for its freewheeling atmosphere. Blacks and whites often danced together there, which was considered very scandalous at the time, and the Cafe was eventually shut down by the Chicago vice squad. While working at the Panama Cafe, Mills sang as a member of the club’s “Panama Trio.”
For a time, Mills performed with the Keith vaudeville troupe as a member of its “Tennessee Ten,” and soon became involved with a fellow performer, Ulysses S. Thompson. They were married in 1923. Mills eventually began moving out of vaudeville and into the more stable—and lucrative—cabaret and nightclub circuit. In 1921, while performing in Harlem at the Barron’s Club, she received an offer to replace one of the leads in the groundbreaking production of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s musical Shuffle Along.
Shuffle Along, which was the first legitimate African American musical comedy and a tremendous hit with white audiences as well, made Mills a star. In sold-out performances at New York’s 63rd Street Music Hall, Shuffle Along showcased African American song and dance numbers and is considered the work that introduced jazzrhythms and dance to mainstream America. The title of the musical referred to a dance step that is considered the predecessor of tap. Shuffle Along “marked the beginning of the Black Renaissance,” noted Lynne Fauley Emery in Black Dance from 1619 to Today.
Mills performed for five months in Shuffle Along, and received rave reviews. She sang with an unusually high-pitched voice that was sometimes described as birdlike, and her petite, lithe frame was well-suited to the energetic score. “Mills’s performances were memorable,” wrote Richard Newman in Notable Black American Women, “for her charismatic effectiveness in presentation. Demure and modest personally and in her private life, on stage she was assured, vivacious, and as capable of intimate mutual interaction with her audiences as a black preacher.”
Following her success in Shuffle Along, promoter Lew Leslie hired Mills to perform at his Plantation Club, a black-themed cabaret on Broadway that played to white audiences. Her performance in the club’s “Plantation Review” was such a success that Leslie created a full-scale Broadway show of the same name, which opened at the 48th Street Theater in July of 1922. Mills’s performance in Plantation Review received rave reviews from New York stage critics, who “liked her energy and vitality, hersinuous dancing, her lack of self-consciousness,” wrote Newman in Notable Black American Women. The essay also explained that Plantation Review was a groundbreaking show because it attracted white audiences to an entirely African American-themed work: “…There was real appreciation for the authenticity of black song and dance, and the realization that Negro portrayals by blackface performers like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor were only imitations of the real thing,” noted Newman.
In 1923, Mills was invited to appear in London in a stage work entitled Dover Street to Dixie. The show was a critical success, but the British cast considered Mills an outsider and treated her badly. It was also feared that the appearance of an African American on stage would cause London audiences to boycott the show. However, midway through the show, Mills mesmerized the audience with her beautiful singing of “The Sleeping Hills of Tennessee” and “any threat of opposition vanished, and for the rest of that night and the remainder of the show’s run, she received a fervent ovation before every song she sang,” wrote Newman.
Dover Street to Dixie soon evolved into a New York stage show, From Dixie to Broadway, which became the first African American musical comedy in an established Broadway theater. It opened in New York in October of 1924, and Mills’s rendition of “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird” was a showstopper. Theater scholars point out that musical reviews such as From Dixie to Broadway gave African American performers like Mills an opportunity to showcase their talents and did much to eradicate vaudeville-era racial stereotypes. Stars such as Mills now became box-office draws, but their success depended upon remaining true to African American musical forms and the rhythms of jazz.
In June of 1925, Mills became the first African American woman to headline at a Broadway venue with her engagement at the Palace Theatre. “Other blacks had been in Palace programs,” explained Newman in Notable Black American Women, “but as a headliner Mills received money, billing, the best dressing room, and courtesy from management—real and symbolic achievements for a black American woman.” For six weeks, Mills starred in Blackbirds of 1926 at Harlem’s Alhambra Theatre. The show—featuring her signature tune, “I’m a Little Black-bird Looking for a Bluebird”—was such a hit that it opened in Paris, London, and several other British cities. At London’s Pavilion Theatre the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VIII, reportedly saw Blackbirds over twenty times. During her time abroad, Mills was a celebrated guest at the glittering parties of young aristocrats and creative types and Evelyn Waugh reportedly based a character in his Brideshead Revisited on Mills.
The heavy touring schedule for Blackbirds took a devastating toll on Mills’s health and she was forced to withdraw from the show. After a stay at a spa in Germany failed to restore her health, Mills sailed back to New York City in the fall of 1927. Upon her arrival in New York, she became seriously ill and was admitted to New York’s Hospital for Joint Diseases for an appendectomy. On November 1, 1927, Mills died of an intestinal obstruction known as paralytic ileus.
The number of mourners at Mills’s funeral at Harlem’s Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church was estimated at 5,000, while 150,000 lined the streets outside. She was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. As Newman wrote in Notable Black American Women, “Mills was one of the most popular people in Harlem during the 1920s. Blacks understood that she had never forgotten her roots, that she never put on airs, that she affirmed over and over again the heritage—and the struggle—they shared together. In appreciation for everything she meant to them, the people of Harlem gave her the grandest funeral within their considerable power, an outpouring of affection and recognition, music and flowers, tears and drama.”
Emery, Lynne Fauley, Black Dance from 1619 to Today, secondrevised edition, Dance Horizons, 1988.
Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, edited by Jack Salzman, Volume 4, Macmillan, 1996, p. 1801.
Negro Almanac, 4th edition, Wiley, 1976.
Notable American Women 1607–1950, edited by Edward T. James, Belknap Press, 1971, pp. 545–546.
Notable Black American Women, Book I, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, Gale, 1992, pp. 752–756.
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