If I could interview Florence Mills, the talented and beautiful vaudeville and Broadway star, my imagination would have soared into the stratosphere tremendously.
First question: Mrs. Mills, where were you born and what was your early childhood like? On Jan. 25, 1896 Florence was born Florence Winfrey in Washington, D. C. to former slaves Nellie and John Winfrey. At age six her career began performing with her older sisters Olivia and Maude. Eventually the trio formed a vaudeville act as the Mills Sisters and did very well appearing in theaters along the Atlantic.
Next question: what events propelled her career past the vaudeville stage? Determination on Florence’s part was in strong supply even though her sisters stopped performing. Florance found some success with a group called the Panama Four. Later, in 1917 while performing with the Tennessee Ten, a traveling black show she met Ulysses “Slow Kit” Thompson who was the show’s dance director and acrobatic dancer. In 1921 they were married and in that same year Florence was a huge success on Daly’s 63rd Street Theater’s Broadway show “Shuffle Along” in New York. That role for her was one of the events marking the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Florance received favorable reviews in places such as London and Paris for her performance and credits the show for launching her stage career.
Subsequently, Florence and Ulysses were hired by Lew Leslie to appear at the Plantation Club in a nightly revue featuring many black artists. On July 22, 1922, the act became a Broadway show called “The Plantation Revue” opening at the Forty-Eighth Street Theatre. Charles B. Cochran the English theatrical impresario brought the Plantation Company to London and they appeared at the London Pavillion in spring 1923 in a show he produced called Dance Street to Dixie with a twofold cast (Florence starred in the all black cast in the second half performance). In fact, in 1924 Florence headlined at the Palace Theatre becoming an international star with the hit show Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds in 1926. Among her European tour fans was the Prince of Wales. She was heralded in the black press as a popular role model bridging racial divides as an ambassador between African Americans and whites. Florances’ hit song was “I’m A Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird.”
Florence led an extraordinary life as a performer and ambassador for racial harmony but sadly on Nov. 1, 1927, at age 31 she died from an infection following an operation at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City. Before that she contracted tuberculosis in London after an exhausting performance of over 300 shows. The music world was shocked by her death. Thousands attended her funeral including James Weldon Johnson, president of the NAACP as well as stars of stage, vaudeville and dance. Dignitaries and political leaders sent condolences. Florence was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York.
Florence can be remembered as a trailblazer for African Americans and women demonstrating how perseverance and her talent catapulted her to amazing success. That is part of her legacy. Duke Ellington memorialized her in a composition called “Black Beauty.” In addition, her image appears on a postage stamp issued by the island of Grenada.
In 2006 a biography of her life by Bill Egan was published and in 2012 a children’s book was published as well. In 1976 the house she lived in in New York City at 220 West 135th St., was designated as a National Historic Landmark but was withdrawn in 2009.
Judy Moore is a tour guide at the Central High Museum, lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.