Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Florence Mills

1895-1927 / Dancer, singer, actress

Florence Mills was an immensely popular performer and Harlem personality, evidenced by the more than 150,000 people who crowded the streets around Mother Zion Church in Harlem in 1927 to mourn her untimely death from appendicitis.

Mills' groundbreaking work in theater broke down many barriers for African-American performers. Her whirlwind career began at the age of four, when she appeared on stage in a musical that was written, produced, and performed by African Americans.

After touring for several years on the vaudeville and cabaret circuits, Mills got her big break in 1921 as the lead in Shuffle Along. Written, directed, produced and performed by African Americans, the musical was wildly successful and caused a sensation. Mills held audiences spellbound with her eccentric dancing and her unique, high-pitched voice.

Following her success in Shuffle Along, Mills was offered a part in the Ziegfeld Follies. Instead, she chose to perform in a competing all-black revue, Dixie to Broadway. International success did not arrive until Florence Mills starred in the tremendously popular show Blackbirds, which reached black and white audiences alike. The musical showcased her signature tune, "I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird." Delivered in her trademark soprano that came close to resembling birdsong, the tune earned Mills the nickname "Blackbird." Some scholars of the Harlem Renaissance have suggested that the deceptively simple melody masked a song of protest.