singer, dancer, comedienne
Florence Mills was born on January 25, 1895, in either
Washington, D.C., or Virginia. The facts about her early life are uncertain.
She was considered to be a child prodigy and was winning dance contests
when she was virtually a toddler. At the age of 4 she was specially featured
in "A Trip to Coontown." She made her first stage appearance
at the age of eight in Williams and Walker's "Sons of Ham" in
Washington, D.C. She was billed as "Baby Florence Mills" and
sang "Miss Hannah from Savannah," a song she learned from Aida
Overton Walker. Her family moved to New York where she and her two sisters
worked in vaudeville as the Mills Trio. Florence played vaudeville until
she was 25 years old, teaming up with people like Ada "Bricktop"
Smith and Cora Green.
Stardom came for Florence Mills when she replaced Gertrude
Samuel, a lead player in the popular Negro revue "Shuffle Along,"
by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. When she left
that show, she toured in Europe and in 1926 she stared in "Blackbirds"
at the Alhambra Theatre in New York. The theme song for the show, "I'm
A little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird" became her favorite which
she sang in a high bird-like voice. "Blackbirds" had a long
run in both Paris and London. Mills returned home an international star.
Mills died suddenly in the fall of 1926 of appendicitis.
Her funeral was one of the most spectacular in Harlem's history. Over
5,000 people packed the Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church
and 100,000 more lined the streets. As the funeral procession moved down
145th Street, a low-flying airplane released a flock of blackbirds. She
was still a young woman, at the height of her fame, and critics hailed
her artistry for many years after her death. The Blackbird Revues, produced
from 1926-1939 were never as successful as the original in 1926. However,
they gave stage opportunities to stars such as Bill "Bojangles"
Robinson who came to be known as the "Mayor of Harlem" and the
final performance, in 1939, was notable for the appearance of Lena Horne.
Florence Mills passed away in November, 1927, after being
hospitalized in New York City for an appendectomy. She was one of the
most popular entertainers of her day, appearing in "Shuffle Along"
and "From Broadway to Dixie" as well as having successful tours
in the United States and Europe.
Click on your favorite player below for a mention of Florence
in the Broadway hit musical "Blackbirds of Broadway"