Florence Mills, born Florence Winfrey (January 25, 1896 – November 1, 1927), known 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 Washington, D.C.. She began performing as a child, when at the age of six she sang duets with her two older sisters. They eventually formed a vaudeville act, calling themselves “The Mills Sisters“. The act did well, appearing in theaters up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Florence’s sisters eventually quit performing, but Florence stayed with it, determined to pursue a career in show business. In time, she joined Ada Smith, Cora Green, and Carolyn Williams in a group called the “Panama Four,” with which she had some success.
Mills became well-known as a result of her role in the successful Broadway musical Shuffle Along with Aubrey L. Lyles, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker (1921) at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre (barely on Broadway), one of the events credited with beginning the Harlem Renaissance, as well acclaimed reviews in London, Paris, Ostend, Liverpool, and other European venues. Mills told the press that despite her years in vaudeville, she believed that Shuffle Along launched her career. In 1924 she headlined at the Palace Theatre, the most prestigious booking in all of vaudeville, and became an international superstar 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 eleven 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”.
Featured in Vogue and Vanity Fair and photographed by Bassano’s studios and Edward Steichen, her signature song and her biggest hit was her rendition of “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird”; another of her hit songs was “I’m Cravin’ for that Kind of Love”.
From 1921 until her death in 1927, she was married to Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson (1888–1990), whom she met in 1917 as the dancing conductor of a black jazz band known as the Tennessee Ten.
Exhausted from more than 250 performances of the hit show Blackbirds in London in 1926, she became ill with tuberculosis. Her condition further weakened her, and she died of infection following an operation at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City, New York on November 1, 1927.at the Mother Zion A.M.E. Church in Harlem. She was 32 years old. Most sources, including black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier as well as mainstream publications including The New York Times and Boston Globe, reported that she had 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 numerous stars of stage, vaudeville and dance. Honorary pall bearers including vocalists Ethel Waters and Lottie Gee, both of whom had performed with Mills in the past. Dignitaries and political figures of both races sent their condolences. She is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.
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 Mills shattered many racial barriers.
After her death, Duke Ellington memorialized Mills in his song “Black Beauty”. Fats Waller also memorialized Mills in a song. “Bye Bye Florence” was recorded in Camden, New Jersey, on 14 November 1927, featuring Bert Howell on vocals with organ by Waller, and “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 Forgotten — Florence Mills”, neither of which were composed by Waller.
Florence Mills is said to have lived at 220 West 135th Street (right image) or a few blocks away (at 267 Edgecombe Avenue) from 1910 to 1927 during her most productive years in Harlem‘s Sugar Hill neighborhood is named after her.
The 220 West 135th Street building that existed in 1927 no longer stands and has been replaced. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. The designation was withdrawn in 2009.
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