Florence Mills was one of the most sensational African-American jazz performers in the 1920s whose voice transcended the era’s racial barriers and left her audience in awe.
Mills was born in Washington, D.C. in 1896. There is not much known about her early life other than that her parents were born into slavery. Although she showed promise at an early age, her opportunities were limited because of her race. Many of the roles reserved for black performers portrayed racial stereotypes. At the age of 3, she appeared onstage at D.C.’s Bijou Theater and by 8 she joined a touring company that performed in Chicago cabarets and reviews.
Featured in the August 8, 1917 Perth Amboy Evening News
In 1920, Mills traveled to New York City at the start of the explosion of Black popular culture known as the Harlem Renaissance. It was during this time that songwriters and comedians met at a NAACP meeting to discuss the creation of an all-Black Broadway show.
Featured in the July 26, 1922 Perth Amboy Evening News
In 1921, Mills made her debut in the off-Broadway production, Shuffle Along, a musical that featured an all African-American creative team. It was this production that paved her road to fame. After the success of Shuffle Along, Mills left the show to work on two projects, The Plantation Revue and From Dover Street to Dixie, which brought Mills to London.
In 1923, Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld offered Mills a starring role in Follies where she would be the first Black woman onstage with an all-white cast. Instead, she decided to work with an all-Black cast on the set of From Dixie to Broadway. She said she took the role “to give my people the opportunity of demonstrating that their talents are equal.” Her song “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird” in the show From Dixie to Broadway was said to represent racial equality, with the bluebird representing freedom.
In 1925, Mills was the first Black woman to be featured on a full page of Vogue and, in 1926, she was the first Black artist to sing at New York’s Aeolian Hall.
In 1927, Mills was working on the production Black Birds in London when she fell ill. She died after returning to New York. Although her life was cut short, her legacy can be seen in the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance and in the Harlem night clubs.
Throughout her career, Mills worked to break racial barriers and stereotypes with her incredible talent and singing voice. Though Mills is not a household name because she died early in her career and her voice recordings were not preserved, images of her can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian.
“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.”
– Florence Mills
Johnson, Susan. (2020). “Florence Mills: Broadway Sensation of the 1920s.” Museum of the City of New York, Received from www.mcny.org/story/florence-mills-broadway-sensation-1920s.
“The Forgotten Fame of Florence Mills.” (2008). Smithsonian, National Portrait Gallery. Received from npg.si.edu/blog/forgotten-fame-florence-mills.
Rutledge, Stephen, et al. (2020). “#BlackLivesMatter: Remembering, Florence Mills.” The WOW Report, Received from worldofwonder.net/blacklivesmatter-remembering-performer-florence-mills/#:~:text=Florence%20Mills%20(1896%2D1927)%3A,and%20I%20am%20my%20audience.