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Hidden Voices is a collaboration between the NYC Department of Education and the Museum of the City of New York that was initiated to help City students learn about the countless individuals who are often “hidden” from traditional historical records. Each of the people highlighted in this series has made a positive impact on their communities while serving as outstanding examples of leadership, advocacy, and community service.

Today, in celebration of Black History Month, we’re highlighting Florence Mills, the groundbreaking Broadway and theater legend who helped break jazz music out of the City’s nightclubs and into popular culture during the Roaring 20s.

Black and white photo of Florence Mills in a ballet costume

Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images. Used under Creative Commons license. Original can be found online.

Florence Mills, also known as the “Queen of Happiness,” was a Black woman who established herself as a breakthrough singer, dancer, and comedian in the segregated world of early Broadway while consistently staying true to the advancement of Black equality.

Mills was a prolific working actor and contributor to American theater. Nicknamed the “Queen of Happiness” for her unique voice, bubbly stage presence, and uninhibited dancing, Mills grew from a childhood in vaudeville to a storied career as an acclaimed singer, dancer, and actor on Broadway and the international stage. The songs Mills popularized and her willingness to sacrifice seemingly lucrative personal opportunities in support of Black art are a testament to her commitment to advancing racial equity throughout her career.

Born in January 1896, Mills was a granddaughter of African victims of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. She was a talented performer from an early age, first appearing on stage at the age of three, and by the age of six, she was touring in cabarets and vaudeville theaters as “Baby Florence” alongside her older sisters in a vaudeville act they named, The Mills Sisters. After her sisters stopped performing, Florence continued to tour. Between 1905 and 1910, Mills’ family moved from Washington D.C. to Chicago and then to New York City as part of the Great Migration (1910–1970), when millions of Black Americans from the South relocated to northern, midwestern, and western cities across the United States in search of work opportunities and safety from racist practices.

Thanks to the Migration, newly-arriving Black people in New York City brought about an explosion of cultural influences to the City following the end of World War I, especially in the arts. This era, known as the Harlem Renaissance, kicked off the rise of jazz music and introduced awestruck audiences to pioneering Black artists like Mills, who had arrived just in time to entertain the throngs of white audiences who packed into Harlem nightclubs in search of the latest jazz hits.

By 1920, Mills had appeared in a variety of traveling shows that featured her singing and dancing, including the Panama Four tour of Canada and the West, and her tour of the South, Midwest, Southwest with the all-Black group, the Tennessee Ten. These tours took place back when traveling Black people faced exclusion from white hotels and restaurants and segregation on public transport. It was during her travels that Mills met her eventual husband, Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson, dance director of the Tennessee Ten.

“Always there was the bogy of my color barring the way. That I was able to win through it all was due to sheer determination to rise superior to prejudice.”

– Florence Mills, 1927

In 1921, Mills made her Broadway debut in “Shuffle Along,” the first all-Black Broadway hit show. As the first-ever Broadway production to feature jazz, “Shuffle Along” is considered a landmark in both musical theater and the Harlem Renaissance. The show debuted in an integrated theater back when segregation was still in place, and ran for nearly 500 performances. Thanks to the show’s popularity and broad appeal, as well as Broadway’s status at the premier forum for entertainment at the time, “Shuffle Along” helped contribute to the desegregation of theaters and provided a positive counterpoint to the racist minstrel shows that remained a prominent part of American entertainment at the time. While minstrel shows featured white artists in Blackface performing racist stereotypes of Black people of the era, “Shuffle Along” gave theater-goers an alternative—a love story featuring Black leads—and audiences of all races enthusiastically supported the production.

The show gained national attention, and before long, Mills was invited to perform in Broadway cabarets. When “Shuffle Along” went on a national tour, Mills chose to stay in New York and instead joined the Plantation Revue, an all-Black, off-Broadway show that proved popular among white audiences—so popular, in fact, that by 1922, the Plantation Revue was turned into a successful Broadway show. In 1923, Mills was invited to London to perform in “Dover Street to Dixie,” a mixed-race production with an all-white first act and an all-Black second act. Once again, her talents shone through as she charmed London audiences with her wide-ranging talents. “She owns the house – no audience in the world can resist her,” exclaimed the show’s producer after her London debut.

Throughout her career, Mills was not just out for her own success; she wanted to “give [her] people the opportunity of demonstrating that their talents are equal.” In 1923, she turned down a starring role in “Ziegfeld’s Follies” to be in “From Dixie to Broadway.” At the time, “Follies” was one of the most popular shows on Broadway, and had Mills joined the production, she arguably would have become more famous than she was right at that moment in time. Instead, Mills went against the conventional wisdom of the day and turned down the “Follies” role for a starring role in the new all-Black production, “From Dixie to Broadway.” Mills believed in the power of Black art—so much so, that she was willing to sacrifice guaranteed personal success to support her fellow Black artists. Mills’ decision would eventually prove prescient, as “From Dixie to Broadway” became a smash hit and turned Mills into a household name anyway. She bet on herself and her fellow Black artists, and for that, she was rewarded with fame and personal success on her own terms.

“It has always been my contention that art should draw no color line. It has been the most gratifying experience if my life to find that I am right.”

– Florence Mills

After a year-long run of “From Dixie to Broadway,” Mills changed productions and took the starring role in the hit show, “Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds” at the Alhambra Theater on 126 Street in Harlem. Her biggest hit song, “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird,” came from that show, and is considered both a love song and a protest of racist injustice. “Blackbirds” ran for six weeks in Harlem, then traveled to Paris and London in 1925. The show was a tremendous success, and Mills was especially loved by the Prince of Wales, who reportedly attended the show more than twenty times and memorized every line. In addition to her theater work, Mills became very active in charity work while in London, including providing money to unhoused people on the Thames Embankment, and promoting the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

By 1926, Mills, after having completed more than 300 performances of “Blackbirds” in London, began to suffer from extreme exhaustion. Doctors advised her that she had to stop performing and seek medical attention—she had become ill with tuberculosis. Mills eventually returned to New York for surgery, but sadly, her condition had become too serious.

In 1927, at just 31 years of age, the great Florence Mills passed away. Her funeral at Mother Zion AME Church on West 137 Street in Harlem was attended by thousands, and the funeral procession that followed drew an estimated 150,000 people. Today, Florence Mills’ name is not well known, as she did not live long enough to be recorded or filmed—especially given that she lived prior to the widespread use of recording and film technology. As such, there are no known recordings of Mills’ many performances. Yet, in her short life, she changed American popular culture and impacted Black entertainment for generations to come. Mills’ legacy lives on through songs that were composed in her honor by her adoring contemporaries, including Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, and various theaters and residential buildings named in her honor across the country. She was even commemorated on a postage stamp issued by Grenada.

Florence Mills now lays at rest in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Sources

  • Egan, Bill. Florence Mills, Harlem Jazz Queen, Scarecrow Press, 2004

Banner photos (left and center) by Bassano Ltd. Used under Creative Commons license. Originals can be found on the National Portrait Gallery’s website.

Right banner photo by General Photographic Agency–Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Used under Creative Commons license. Original can be found online.

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NYC Department of Education, 2019