Florence Mills

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Such is the intelligence of racists: “In the South, colored mammies bring up white babies and actually feed them at their own breasts. Yet, when the same mammy has her own little black baby, the mother of the white baby does not allow her youngster to play with the Negro child. If a white person in a theatre is put next to a Negro, the white person objects. Yet the same white person will eat food cooked by a colored person and be waited on by another Negro.” – Florence Mills

Florence Mills, born Florence Winfrey (January 25, 1896 – November 1, 1927), known as the “Queen of Happiness,” was a cabaret singer, dancer, and comedian known for her effervescent stage presence, delicate voice, and winsome, wide-eyed beauty. A daughter of former enslaved parents, John Winfrey and Nellie Simon, she was born Florence Winfrey in Washington, D.C., on January 25, 1895.

Featured in Vogue and Vanity Fair and photographed by Bassano and Edward Steichen, she was best known for her renditions of “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird” and “I’m Cravin’ for that Kind of Love.”

Mills starred in Shuffle Along (1921) at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre (barely on Broadway), one of the events credited with beginning the Harlem Renaissance, as well acclaimed reviews in London, Paris, Ostend, Liverpool, and other European venues. She became an international superstar starring in the hit show Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds (1926).

From 1921 until her death in 1927, she was married to Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson (1888–1990), whom she met in 1917 as the dancing conductor of a black jazz band known as the Tennessee Ten.

Exhausted from more than 250 performances of the hit show Blackbirds in London in 1926, she became ill with tuberculosis. Her condition further weakened her and she died of infection following an operation in New York City, New York on November 1, 1927.

After her death, Duke Ellington memorialized Mills in his song “Black Beauty.” Fats Waller also memorialized Mills in a song. “Bye Bye Florence” was recorded in Camden, NJ on 14 November 1927 featuring Bert Howell on vocals with organ by Waller, and “Florence” was recorded with Juanita Stinette Chappell on vocals and Waller on organ. Other songs recorded the same day include “You Live on in Memory” and “Gone But Not Forgotten — Florence Mills,” neither of which were composed by Waller.

A residential building at 267 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem‘s Sugar Hill neighborhood is named after her.

Photographer S.Georges of Leicester

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