Florence Mills

Read Shuffle Along: The Musical at the Center of the Harlem Renaissance to learn more about this important production.


Florence Mills (1895-1927)
Dancer, singer, actress




The Kennedy Center
Marco Polo
This resource was created in March 2003 by ARTSEDGE. All rights reserved.
ARTSEDGE is a project of the Education Department of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,
and is a member of the MarcoPolo Partnership
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.

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Mills captivated audiences and contributed to Shuffle Along's success.
She worked with composer Eubie Blake and his partner Noble Sissle in 1921.
She inspired Duke Ellington's haunting song "Black Beauty," written in 1928.
She performed songs composed by William Grant Still.
Bill Robinson, a close friend, gave her tap lessons and helped launch her career.
Like Mills, Paul Robeson was in the Shuffle Along cast.
She was photographed by James VanDerZee.
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