Florence Mills was born on January 25, 1896, in or near Washington, D.C., and made her stage debut at age five as “Baby Florence.” Her major breakthrough happened in 1921, when she appeared in the Off-Broadway musical Shuffle Along. The following year, she appeared on Broadway in Plantation Revue, and later the song “I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird” from Blackbirds became her trademark. She died in 1927.
Early Career and Background
Florence Mills was born Florence Winfrey on January 25, 1896 (some accounts say 1895), in the Washington, D.C., area. She became an entertainer as a young child, billed as "Baby Florence" and captivating audiences with song and dance. She worked in vaudeville and joined a touring company at eight years old before authorities found out she was underage. Her family eventually moved to Harlem, New York, and in 1910 Mills would form another vaudeville act—the Mills Sisters—with her siblings Olivia and Maude. Mills would later meet and wed Ulysses S. Thompson, from the troupe the Tennessee Ten, in 1923.
Big Success With 'Shuffle Along'
In 1921, Mills was hired to replace Gertrude Saunders in the Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle production Shuffle Along, which was a trailblazing musical with an all African-American creative team. The Off-Broadway show was a hit, and Mills became renowned for her performances, highlighted by the tune "I’m Craving for That Kind of Love."
Mills earned a reputation for her wondrous high-pitched voice, unique dance movements and comedic timing that allowed her to become an unparalleled force during the Harlem Renaissance. With Mills quite aware of the racial dynamics of the day and wishing to make a difference, she also served as an icon for African-American performers and audiences of all backgrounds.
International Show 'Blackbirds'
Though Shuffle Along was a big hit, Mills made her actual Broadway debut in 1922 in the show Plantation Revue with the role of Gypsy Blues. The musical was eventually renamed From Dixie to Broadway and played in England before being launched again on the New York stage in October 1924. Then, in 1926, Mills starred in the musical Blackbirds, which showcased the song she was most associated with—"I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird." The show toured internationally as well, and Mills became a massive, sought-after star in Britain.
Death and Legacy
In 1927, Mills became gravely ill while abroad and returned to the States. A young woman in her 30s, she died in New York City on November 1 from appendicitis. She was revered and loved by her audience, and tens of thousands came to pay their respects on the streets outside of her Mount Zion A.M.E. Church funeral.
Literary works on the artist’s life include the books Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen, by Bill Egan, and the children’s publication Harlem’s Little Blackbird, written by Renee Watson and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Archives of Mills' personal and professional papers are also held at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center.
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