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
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,
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.
Mills captivated audiences
and contributed to Shuffle
with composer Eubie
Blake and his partner Noble Sissle in 1921.
haunting song "Black Beauty," written in 1928.