January 25, 1896– Florence Mills:
“I belong to a race that sings and dances as it breathes. I don’t care where I am so long as I can sing and dance. The wide world is my stage and I am my audience. If I didn’t feel like that I wouldn’t be an artist. The things you do best for other people are the things you would do just as well for yourself. My greatest ambition is to see the white people ignore the colored question.”
She was famous for her thrilling singing voice, earning the monikers ”The Jazz Queen” and “The Happiest Sound Around”. She was an influential contributor to the great Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural, social, and artistic explosion that took place in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan in the 1920 and 1930s. During that era, it was known as the “New Negro Movement”. The Harlem Renaissance was a rebirth of African-American Arts. Though it was centered in Harlem, many black writers from Africa and the Caribbean who lived in Paris were also influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.
Interest in the lives of African-Americans brought experimental collaborative work with black and white folk, such as George Gershwin’s opera Porgy And Bess, and the queer Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints In Three Acts. The black sound was appropriated by white band leaders defying racist attitudes to include the best and the brightest African-American stars of music in their performances.
There was some pressure for artists of the Harlem Renaissance to play to the sensibilities of conservative white America. Queer Culture, while far-more accepted in Harlem than most places in the country, was most fully lived out in smoky dark bars, nightclubs, and cabarets. A gay blues music scene boomed, and queer artists used its popularity as a way to express themselves with more honesty. Although, you could still be arrested for being gay. Among the popular Blues artists were Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who sang:
“When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look em’ over and try to understand: They’ll go to those parties, have the lights down low, only those parties where women can go.”
Singer Gladys Bentley was a cross-dresser and the owner of Clam House a music club for queer patrons. The Hamilton Lodge in Harlem hosted an annual drag ball that attracted thousands to watch more than hundred young men dance in drag.
The Harlem Renaissance challenged racial definitions and stereotypes, but also gender roles, sexuality, and sexism in America in general. The Harlem Renaissance was way ahead of the rest of the USA in embracing Feminism and Queer culture. The black bourgeoisie saw this as causing more hatred of black people. Yet, despite white and black Conservative America, gay culture helped define the Harlem Renaissance.
African-Americans used Art, Literature, Music and Theatre to prove their humanity and demand for equality. The Harlem Renaissance led to more opportunities for blacks to be mainstream. New Black Fiction caught the attention of the USA and Europe. Among the artists who became famous around the world: Zora Neale Hurston, Louis Armstrong, Jacob Lawrence, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, Bill “Bonjangles” Robinson, Paul Robeson, and… Florence Mills.
Mills lived for the stage. She started at an early age and she performed until she took that final curtain call. She was only here for a brief time, but she accomplished a great deal, including a leading role in developing Black Theatre.
The daughter of slaves, Mills was the seventh of eight children (five of her siblings died). She began her career singing on the sidewalks of Washington DC for change. She was still a kid when she became a member of The Black Patti Troubadours, a comedy act. She also began winning contests for her singing, cakewalks and buck dances.
When she was just seven-years-old, she was a guest star in her first professional show, The Sons Of Ham (1903). But, The New York Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Children (NYSPCC) took her from the show and held her in custody until they could place her in an institution run by nuns. That was the only time that Mills took a break from showbiz.
When she was 10-years-old, her mother changed Mill’s birthdate on her birth certificate, so she could work. She formed a group with two of her sisters, and The Mills Sisters performed in black clubs and toured for a decade. They broke up in 1916, and within a year, Mills move to Chicago and began work at the Panama Café, a black cabaret.
In 1917, Mills left Chicago and joined The Tennessee Ten, a group that played the best Black Burlesque theatres. They had a little revue titled Folly Town that was so successful it ran for five years.
Mills was cast in Shuffle Along, one of the first Broadway musicals produced, written and performed entirely by African-Americans. It featured music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, and premiered on Broadway in 1921, running for 504 performances.
Shuffle Along launched the careers of Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson, and became such a hit that it caused “curtain time traffic jams” in front of the theatre. It was truly a sensation. It was the first Broadway show where black audiences could sit in orchestra seats rather than being relegated to the back balcony.
When Shuffle Along went on tour, Mills stayed in NYC and was cast in The Plantation Revue, another all-black musical, also a hit.
Meanwhile, in London, Sir Charles B. Cochran was looking for American entertainments for the London stage. He brought in The Plantation Revue’s entire cast to London for a show he called Dover Street To Dixie, with an English cast in the first half (Dover), and an American black cast for the second half (Dixie). It was based on The Begger’s Opera by John Gay, also the source material for Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. Mills and the show were a huge hit in London, although they had to work against the racism of England.
When she returned to NYC, Mills was in the integrated cast of The Greenwich Village Follies (1924). It ran for more than a year.
In 1926, she was cast in Blackbirds, an all-black revue that had a long run at a theatre in Harlem, ignoring Broadway. It showcased her signature tune, I’m A Little Blackbird Looking For A Bluebird. The show played Paris and then moved to London’s Pavilion Theatre where it ran for a year. Mills became so popular in London that her success there was compared to Baker’s in Paris. The Prince Of Wales saw the show more than 20 times.
In 1927, while still touring in Blackbirds, Mills became exhausted and was told by her doctors that she had to stop performing. She returned to NYC and a few days later she took that final bow, taken by TB at just 31-years-old. Her funeral in Harlem drew more than 250,000 mourners.
Mills was a staunch, outspoken supporter of Equal Rights for African-Americans. Her signature song, I’m A Little Blackbird Looking For A Bluebird is a plea for racial equality, and during her lifetime she broke many racial barriers.
After her death, Duke Ellington memorialized Mills in his composition Black Beauty. Fats Waller also memorialized Mills in a song, Bye, Bye Florence.
This 1927 Edward Steichen portrait of Mills was the first ever full page portrait of an African-American person to appear in Vanity Fair Magazine
In the 2016 season on Broadway, there was a stage adaptation titled Shuffle Along, Or, The Making Of The Musical Sensation Of 1921 And All That Follows, starring Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter. It featured the original music from Shuffle Along with a book written by gay theatrical genius George C. Wolfe, based on the original show and historical events surrounding it. The new show received glowing reviews and was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning none. Mills was portrayed by the gorgeous Adrienne Warren (of Orange Is The New Black) who was one of those nominated.