Before there was your favorite female entertainer, there was “FLORENCE MILLS” WINFREY (1896-1927), the first black international female superstar of the 20th century. But you’ve probably never heard of her because the recording techniques used in the early 1900s couldn’t capture her voice, and she was never filmed, so there are no recorded performances of her.
Born to former slave parents in the Washington D.C. slum of Goat Alley on Jan. 25, 1896, Florence Winfrey won a talent contest at 4-years-old for Buck and Wing dancing. While entertaining at a diplomatic function that same year, she received a gold bracelet from the British ambassador’s wife.Three years later she made her professional debut as a guest star on The Sons of Ham with vaudeville entertainers George Walker and Bert Williams, who was the first black person to have a lead role on the Broadway stage.
The following year, Florence joined a white vaudeville touring company and moved to New York with her mother and older sisters, Olivia and Maude, settling in Harlem, where she and her sisters established a traveling song and dance act known as the Mills Sisters. They performed in most black theaters in New York and even toured across much of the South until Maude married and Olivia retired. Florence then formed the Panama Trio singing group with Ada “Bricktop” Smith and Cora Green, but within a year the trio had disbanded after a shooting scandal closed the Panama Cafe where they had often performed.
Florence then joined The Tennessee Ten, a successful black traveling show, where she met dancing director Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson, who was a well-known acrobatic, tap and “rubberlegs” dancer. The couple married in 1921, the same year Florence was offered the lead role in Shuffle Along, which was written by Eubie Blake and became the first hit Broadway musical written by and about African-Americans. The musical is also considered an impetus to the Harlem Renaissance.
Florence became an overnight sensation, garnering one of the first black female fashion spreads in Vogue and Vanity Fair. There were Florence Mills dolls, and anything she did sartorially became the latest fashion trend. She also had her own silk stockings simply known as the Florence Mills shade. In 1924, Florence starred in Dixie to Broadway, which became another hit and offered her rendition of “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird”, which became her signature tune, earning her the nickname Blackbird.
By 1926, at the age of 30, Florence had become an international superstar starring in the hit show Blackbirds, which helped advance the careers of several others including comedian Tim Moore, tap dancer and actor Bill Robinson as well as Lena Horne. Florence once said:
“I have never learned to dance or sing. Whatever talents I have were born in me. It is perfectly natural for me to sing and dance. If I hear a song I sing it in my own way, a way in which is not perhaps what the composer intended. 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.”
Florence used her celebrity status to promote charitable efforts by visiting children’s hospitals and distributing money to the homeless, as well as speaking out against racial injustice:
“There are many colored boys in America who, after being trained as lawyers and doctors, have to become train attendants because they are black and there is no place for them. Yet it is ridiculous to think that we are different from white people, because we are educated and brought up to think the same way as you. After all, it is white authors whose books we read and it is a white culture that surrounds us. Yet if we voice our opinion we are downed. Sometimes I have started to argue and then heard: ‘What right have you to talk. You are black.’”
But the strain of performing multiple times per day had taken a toll on Florence, and she was visibly exhausted and ill. In August of 1926, doctors told Florence that she must stop and seek medical attention or she would die. When she returned to the U.S. the following month, she postponed medical treatment because her mother had fallen ill.
On October 25, however, Florence entered the hospital for tuberculosis, but it was too late and nothing improved her condition. Although she knew she was dying, Florence sang songs to cheer her nurses, and at 4 a.m. November 1, she died. Her last words: “I don’t want anyone to cry when I die. I just want to make people happy, always.” Her funeral, held on November 6, was the largest Harlem had ever seen. Over 5,000 people packed into the Mother Zion A.M.E. Church, and 100,000 more lined the streets. As the funeral procession moved along 145th Street, a low-flying airplane released a flock of blackbirds.
Following her death, many musicians, poets and artists memorialized Florence. She was also celebrated, along with Bert Williams, with the creation of the Flo-Bert Awards, which honor outstanding individuals in the field of tap dance. She was interred in Woodlawn Cemetery, which is also the final resting place to many other great entertainers.
MORE PHOTOS OF FLORENCE
Florence basks in the glow of a sun lamp in her dressing room before a show in Paris, France (1925).
Rare Florence Mills photo from 1925.
Florence and her husband Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson (1926)
Florence rocking a blonde wig back in 1927. One of the first performers to do this back in the day. This is taken from a playbill from one of Florence’s very last performances in Liverpool, England.
The crowd in Harlem during her funeral (1927). As you can see, there are people hanging out the windows just to get a glimpse of her casket. As stated, over 5,000 people packed into the Mother Zion A.M.E. Church and 100,000 more lined the streets that day.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Special thanx to Bill Egan (of florencemills.com) for providing many of the photos!!