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Wednesday’s wise woman … Florence Mills

February 6, 2013

Florence Mills (1896-1927) known as the Queen of Happiness and Harlem’s Little Blackbird was  an African-American singer, dancer and comedian known for her bubbly stage presence, delicate voice and wide-eyed beauty.  It was not only talent she was remembered for mostly it was her generosity and faith.  

Florence Mills

She was born in Washington DC.; her parents Nellie and John Winfrey were formerly slaves.  Florence had two older sisters; from an early age they sang and danced in a vaudeville act called the The Mills sisters. Although they were successful her sisters soon gave up performing.  Florence, determined to make a career in show business carried on.
She went on to join Ada Smith, Cora Green and Carolyn Williams in a group called the Panama Four and enjoyed some notoriety.
She toured tirelessly  from state to state until she moved to New York City where the stages got bigger and the lights brighter and also the opportunities to become an international star.  First in 1921 Florence won a role in Shuffle Along; a sell out show that introduced jazz to white audiences.
During this time the Harlem Renaissance was happening; all sorts of creative minds were contributing to Harlem’s new and vibrant cultural movement. People such as Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes. Florence in play after play she continued; after one particular performance of the play From Dover Street to Dixie , Florence and the rest of the cast was invited to London

Although Florence knew she was gifted with a sweet bird like voice that everyone loved; she understood first hand the profound ache of racism. She, her family and friends were turned away from the ‘white only’’ theatres where Florence was supposed to be performing. On the ship to England white passengers refused to eat in the same dining room as Florence and the troupe.
When she arrived in London many people threatened to boycott the show; not wishing to see black people on their stage.  Nonetheless she did step on stage and received an ovation before she sang a note.

Florence Mills+

After Florence returned to Harlem she was offered a leading role, she would be the first black woman to star in the Ziegfeld Follies  it would have been a dream opportunity however she turned it down.  Instead she found opportunities to sing in shows that gave unknown back singers and actors the chance to perform on stage.  Florence became the leading lady in Dixie to Broadway.
Her signature song; a cry for human rights was I’m a little blackbird looking fpr a bluebird.  A song from the hit musical Blackbirds.
‘Tho’ I’m of a darker hue,
I’ve a heart the same as you …
For love I am dyin’, my heat is cryin’.
A wise old owl said Keep on tryin’.
I’m a little blackbird looking for a bluebird too …’

florence mills2

It was a huge success and when she returned to London this time she was greeted by reporters and photographers and invitations to many parties.
This however didn’t stop her performing long and hard and visiting hospitals and giving money and food to the homeless.  Unfortunately this exhausting situation took its toll in 1926 Florence became ill with tuberculosis and had to return home. In a weakened state she got a secondary infection and died aged 35.  Her death shook the music world; tens of thousands of mourners took to the streets of Harlem. Letters, telegrams and flowers were sent to the family from worldwide.  Tributes came from the rich, poor, politicians, entertainers, black and white.

Further reading Harlem’s Little Blackbird : the story of Florence Mills by Renee Watson ; illustrated by Christian Robinson a children’s book with interesting illustrations a sound biography of a beloved entertainer.

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