Posted on 06/17/2015

Photo taken on August  1, 1926

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Florence Mills

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Photo replaced on June 26, 2015
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Florence Mills

Florence Mills
Photo comes from a program from the Theatre des Champs-Elysees Music Hall for the Broadway play, Black Birds of 1926. It was to be one of the last appearances Ms. Mills would make before her untimely death at the age of thirty-one.

Born Florence Winfrey (1896 - 1927), in a Washington DC slum to parents who were once slaves, the highpoint of her childhood was her appearance in the road company production of Bert Williams and George Walker’s Sons of Ham. She then moved to New York with her mother and sisters and by age fourteen had organized a travelling song and dance act with her sisters known as the Mills Sisters. From then on, Florence Mills was the name she used.

Mills played vaudeville until she was 25 years old, teaming up with people like Ada "Bricktop" Smith and Cora Green. She became an overnight star when she replaced Gertrude Helen Saunders, a lead player in the popular Negro revue Shuffle Along. When she left that show, she toured in Europe and in 1926 she starred in Blackbirds at the Alhambra Theatre in New York. The theme song for the show, I'm A little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird, sung in a high, sweet bird-like voice, became her favorite. Blackbirds had a long run in both Paris and London. Mills returned home an international star.

In April 1927 Blackbirds reached its 250th performance at the London Pavilion but the strain of two shows a day plus matinees and charity benefits took a heavy toll on her and she became visibly exhausted and ill. By August her doctor told Mills that she must stop and get medical attention or she would die. Returning to the USA in September she continued to postpone treatment and by late October she was rushed to hospital with peritonitis. Even though she knew she was dying she sang songs to cheer her nurses and her grief-stricken manager. She died on November 1st and her last words were “I don’t want anyone to cry when I die. I just want to make people happy, always”.

Florence Mills’ funeral was one of the most spectacular in Harlem’s history, with more than 150,000 people crowding the streets in tribute.