Florence Mills: International Performer

Florence Mills, 1920
Performer Florence Mills, 1920.

Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

Florence Mills became the first African American international star in 1923 when she performed in the theatrical production Dover Street to Dixie. Theatrical manager C.B. Cochran said of her opening night performance, “she owns the house—no audience in the world can resist that.” Years later, Cochran recalled Mills' ability to mesmerize audiences by saying “she controlled the emotions of the audiences as only a true artist can.”

 Singer, dancer, comedian Florence Mills was known as the “Queen of Happiness.” A well-known performer during the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age, Mills’ stage presence and soft voice made her a favorite of both cabaret audiences and other artists.

Early Life

Mills was born Florence Winfrey on January 25, 1896, in Washington D.C.

Her parents, Nellie and John Winfrey, were formerly enslaved people.

Career as a Performer

At an early age, Mills began performing as a vaudeville act with her sisters under the name “The Mills Sisters.” The trio performed along the eastern seaboard for several years before disbanding. Mills, however, decided to continue her career in entertainment. She began an act called “Panama Four” with Ada Smith, Cora Green, and Carolyn Williams.

Mills' fame as a performer came in 1921 from her pivotal role in Shuffle Alongi. Mills performed the show and received critical acclaim in London, Paris, Ostend, Liverpool and other cities throughout Europe.

The following year, Mills was featured in Plantation Revue. Ragtime composer J. Russell Robinson and lyricist Roy Turk wrote music that displayed Mills’ ability to sing jazz tunes. Popular songs from the musical included “Aggravatin’ Papa” and “I’ve Got What it Takes.”

By 1923, Mills was considered an international star when theatrical manager C.B. Cochran cast her in the mixed-race show, Dover Street to Dixie.   

The following year Mills was the headlining performer at the Palace Theatre. Her role in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds secured Mills’ place as an international star. The Prince of Wales saw Blackbirds an estimated eleven times. At home in the United States, Mills received the positive criticism from Black press outlets. The most notable critic said that Mills was “an ambassador of goodwill from the Blacks to the whites…a living example of the potentialities of the Negro ability when given a chance to make good.”

By 1926, Mills was performing music composed by William Grant Still. After seeing her performance, actress Ethel Barrymore said, “I like to remember, too, one evening at Aeolian Hall when a little colored girl named Florence Mills wearing a short white dress, came out on the stage alone to sing a concert. She sang so beautifully. It was a great and thrilling experience.”

Personal Life and Death

After a four-year courtship, Mills married Ulysses "Slow Kid" Thompson in 1921.

After performing in more than 250 shows in the London cast of Blackbirds, Mills became sick with tuberculosis. She died in 1927 in New York City after undergoing an operation. Media outlets such as Chicago Defender and The New York Times reported that Mills had died from complications associated with appendicitis.

More than 10,000 people attended her funeral. Most notably in attendance were civil rights activists such as James Weldon Johnson. Her pallbearers included performers such as Ethel Waters and Lottie Gee.

Mills is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.

Influence on Popular Culture

Following Mills’ death, several musicians memorialized her in their songs. Jazz pianist Duke Ellington honored Mills’ life in his song Black Beauty.

Fats Waller wrote Bye Bye Florence. Waller’s song was recorded just a few days after Mills’ death. That same day, other musicians recorded songs such as “You Live on in Memory” and “Gone But Not Forgotten, Florence Mills.”

In addition to being memorialized in songs, 267 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem is named after Mills.

And in 2012 Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up the Stage was published by Lee and Low. 

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Lewis, Femi. "Florence Mills: International Performer." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/florence-mills-international-performer-45262. Lewis, Femi. (2021, July 29). Florence Mills: International Performer. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/florence-mills-international-performer-45262 Lewis, Femi. "Florence Mills: International Performer." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/florence-mills-international-performer-45262 (accessed June 5, 2023).