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*On this date in 1896 Florence Mills was born. She was a Black singer, dancer.
From Washington D.C., she was raised in severe poverty. Her parents John and Nellie were illiterate migrants from Lynchburg, Virginia. A young Florence was on stage full-time as a child, first as a “pickaninny” in white vaudeville then as a sister act on the Black popular entertainment circuit.
Mills’ big break came in 1921 in Chicago with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along, the show that introduced syncopated song and dance to white America. She went on to star in Plantation Revue in New York and Dover Street to Dixie in London. Florenz Ziegfeld offered Mills a major role in his Follies, but she turned him down to pursue the creation of an all-Black revue. The show, From Dixie to Broadway was successful and led to her opening of Blackbirds of 1926 in London.
Mills was one of the most popular personalities of the Harlem Renaissance. Soon after her return to New York due to poor health and she died November 1st 1927. Florence Mills’ funeral brought over 150,000 people out on the streets, the largest such gathering in Harlem’s history. She was one of the most outstanding Black women in American musical comedy during the Jazz Age of the 1920’s.
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York