ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Harlem was Paris to the lost generation at the turn of the century.
Some of these women, who have never been heralded must be saluted.
Florence Mills: A Lost Treasure
By Bill Egan
We need to see our mothers, aunts, our sisters, and grandmothers. We need to see Frances Harper, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, women of our heritage. We need to have these women preserved. We need them all: . . . Constance Motley, Etta Moten . . . All of these women are important as role models. Depending on our profession, some may be even more important. Zora Neale Hurston means a great deal to me as a writer. So does Josephine Baker but not in the same way. Yet I would imagine for someone like Diahann Carroll, or Diana Ross. Miss Baker must mean a great deal. I would imagine that Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith, though they are important to me, would be even more so to Aretha Franklin.
Maya Angelou, Black Women Writers at Work, Edited by Claudia Tate (New York: Continuum, 1983)
Maya Angelous heartfelt plea for the importance of keeping inspiring role models before the new generation of young African American women could not find a better exemplar than Florence Mills. Never quite lost to race consciousness, Florence has remained just within the peripheral vision of successive generations, a tantalizing image of something precious, lost but still treasured. While Ms Angelous focus was on women, and women entertainers in particular, Florence Mills can serve as a universal role model, not just for all African Americans but for the world at large. Though she gained fame as an exceptionally talented performer, she is equally fascinating as an intelligent and socially conscious human being.
I want to focus on the private side here but first a quick summary of her public career. For more detail see Tip.net Biography
1896 Born in a Washington DC slum to ex-slave parents. 1899 First stage appearance; wins talent contest for Buck and Wing dancing. 1903 Makes professional debut as “Baby Florence” in The Sons of Ham 1904-5 Joins vaudeville star ‘Bonita’ as a pick; is arrested as an underage performer and institutionalised 1905-10 Family moves to New York; normal schooling for a while 1910-15 Joins her two older sisters playing vaudeville as “The Mills Sisters” 1916-17 Moves to Chicago, forms Panama Trio, with Bricktop and Cora Green 1917-18 Joins The Tennessee Ten, whose dancing director, Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson, becomes her lifelong partner. They support leading vaudeville star Nora Bayes 1918-19 The Panama Trio re-forms when Kid Thompson is drafted for World War I. They go on a lengthy and very successful tour of Canada and the West 1919-20 Florence re-joins Kid Thompson & the Tennessee Ten in a successful mixed-race show called Folly Town that included Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion) and Jack Haley (The Tin Man) 1921 She replaces one of the leads in famous Black musical Shuffle Along and becomes Broadway sensation 1922 Promoter Lew Leslie builds an all-Black show around her at the Plantation restaurant on Broadway, the first Black woman to be so featured. 1923 Famous British theatre impresario C. B. Cochran brings her show to London where, despite some nasty racist opposition, she scores a huge success, becoming first Black female international superstar of the century Back in USA, she guest-stars in the Greenwich Village Follies 1924-25 Her new show Dixie to Broadway is the first Black show to get a run on Broadway proper 1925 Heads the bill at the Palace Theatre, the first Black performer to achieve vaudeville’s highest honour 1925 New show Blackbirds opens in Harlem destined for France & England 1926 Makes sensational concert appearance at New York’s Aeolian Hall, singing songs by African American classical composer William Grant Still 1926 Blackbirds is a huge success in Paris and Ostend Blackbirds opens at London Pavilion in September. The Prince of Wales is a frequent audience member. London is seized by Blackbirds mania 1927 In April Blackbirds reaches 250th performance. In August it tours the provinces but after Liverpool engagement doctors tell Florence, visibly exhausted and ill, she must stop performing or she will die 1927 In September, she arrives back in USA to be feted with banquets and special ceremonies 1927 On October 25 Florence enters hospital for treatment and dies unexpectedly on 1 November. Her funeral is the biggest ever seen in Harlem.
The remarkable public achievements of Florence Mills have been documented frequently, though often inaccurately. I hope to set that to rest with my planned biography. Her private personality, though little known, is equally fascinating.
On-stage she was an extrovert who could hold an audience in the palm of her hand, switching them from tears to laughter in the blink of an eye. Off-stage she was a shy, soft-spoken introvert who shunned the limelight
On-stage she was a light-hearted figure of fun and merriment. Off-stage she was a serious thinker about social issues with a passion for self-education
Her public image was of a highly paid super-star amassing a fortune through secret real estate deals. The reality was she gave away large amounts of money in secret acts of charity; her only real estate deal was purchasing a family home to share with her elderly mother
Media speculation hinted at affairs with White financiers, royalty and nobility. The truth is she was completely devoted to her husband U. S. Thompson.
Super stars are expected to be haughty prima donnas. Florence was the exact opposite,
self-effacing and unfailingly polite to all she met from the highest to the lowest
The passionate conviction that drove Florence Mills was her belief she could use her talent for entertainment to help breakdown the barriers of prejudice enmeshing her people. There was no personal bitterness in her hatred of prejudice, just a conviction that it was wrong and illogical. Unlike many of her fellow race members she had experienced positive contact with White people from an early age, having been the darling of the diplomatic set in Washington DC as a tot. Her later years in Black vaudeville certainly exposed her to all the petty humiliations that were the lot of Black people in those times but show business was one of the most tolerant industries. She enjoyed the appreciation of White audiences and had many friends among White performers.
Nevertheless she burned with indignation at the injustices of racism. In an article she wrote for an English newspaper she said:
How absurd it all is how utterly unfair! There is not a coloured man or a coloured woman in existence who does not bitterly resent the sentiment that drives them beyond the pale.
If only those who consciously or unconsciously outrage the sensibilities of the Negro knew as I know what wounds they inflict, what suffering and misery they cause, they would view the man of colour from a different perspective. They would know, at any rate, that he has a soul not so very different from their own.
They would learn something, perhaps, of the acute sensibility of his feelings, of his childish trust in human nature, of his humility and instinctive generosity.
Despite the anger, her views were tinged with an optimism that was shared by many Black people in those times. There was a sense that somehow if they elevated themselves by education and hard work then reason would win out and the White majority would relent. Though things were bad much progress had been made since the demise of slavery. Reflecting this view, Florence told an English journalist:
Down South its still terrible. There isnt slavery any more, – not real slavery but theres something very like it. But its all going to be better. Its all going to be much better. When you think how things were sixty, forty why, even twenty years ago, you can see the difference at once. It isnt only that weve got societies for our people down in the South. It isnt only that weve shown we can make money as well as anybody else, that were creative, that were capable of great things in art . . . The whole spirits altering.
Her belief that her own example of talent combined with professionalism and dedication could help win friends for her people fuelled her optimism. In her final message of farewell to the English people, which the NAACP proudly published back home in a press release, she said:
To return to my hearts one real and great ache, does personal popularity, enthusiasm and applause count for anything? I had hoped and, in fact, I go on hoping that for every friend I have made in this country, the colored people as a whole have also gained a friend. Britain is a Christian country, surely Christianity knows no color.
Because the Creator made some of us different colors be it black, brown or yellow is it in the power of anyone honestly and sincerely Christian at heart to look down on us as something inferior. Black sheep are certainly not to be found among people of one color only. I now return to America, still hoping that my efforts have not been quite in vain. I shall return again, and may those friends I and, I hope, my people have gained not merely remain loyal and true but multiply many times.
It was this dedication to the cause of her people that caused Harlem Renaissance literary figure Theophilus Lewis to say, [Florence Mills] always regarded herself as our envoy to the world at large and she was probably the best one we ever had. That she did win friends was dramatically shown by the change in cynical British journalist Hannen Swaffer. In 1923 he wrote such offensive racist material that Florences producer C. B. Cochran had him physically ejected from the London Pavilion theatre on opening night. By 1927 Swaffer was an adoring fan and an apostle allowing Florence to use his column to spread her message of tolerance. In later years he supported the cause of the Scottsboro Boys in his columns.
Florences success in winning hearts and minds in England was due in no small part to her transparently sincere and lovable personality. However, it was also helped greatly by the leaking, towards the end of her stay, of news about her covert charitable work in hospitals and along the London embankment where the homeless dwelt. Even while suffering from her final illness, instead of going home to rest and comfort after shows end, she would venture out into the London night to distribute anonymous charity, giving away her hard-earned money in sympathy for the plight of those less well-off.
All very well, you may say But this was all so long ago; why is Florence Mills still relevant as a role model for African Americans today? As an outsider I am venturing on delicate terrain here but it seems to me that the spirit of hope and optimism that burned so brightly for Black people in Florence Mills time has faded considerably for many today. The intervening years have seen the battle for legal civil rights resoundingly won and yet there are many problems surrounding the issue of race in modern America. For some the answer lies in an angry response and there may be much grounds for anger in the ghettos of big cities and the less affluent underbelly of urban USA.
There are times undoubtedly when injustice must be confronted with strong, even violent, action.
Nevertheless, despite whatever problems there may be, I believe Florence Mills gentle but firm determination is a better model in the long run for overcoming social obstacles, and less damaging to the individual psyche, than more aggressive approaches. As Theophilus Lewis said in his tribute partly quoted above, The world must be shown not only that we can produce genius, but that we also possess dependability, stamina and courage. Florence Mills showed it. What more could a role model offer?
In defence of my claims I should explain how Florence Mills came to be such a significant role model for me personally, a White, male Australian, born in Ireland ten years after her death. From my teen years I was a keen jazz fan with a consequent interest in Black culture, including the poetry and prose of Langston Hughes and novelists like Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison. I knew the music of great Black female singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Adelaide Hall to name but a few. My favorite musical figure was Duke Ellington. Quite late in my life I heard for the first time Ellingtons Black Beauty and was instantly bowled over. It was the most moving and inspiring piece of music I had ever heard. Collecting as many versions of it as I could find became an obsession.
In addition to collecting versions, I also read avidly anything written about Black Beauty. I soon found it was Dukes tribute to an obscure singer and dancer named Florence Mills, who died tragically young in 1927, leaving no trace via records or films. My curiosity was piqued; who was this person? A new obsession emerged – I must find out everything I could about Florence Mills.
A revisit to biographies of Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Lena Horne, Paul Robeson, revealed that they all considered her one of their greatest peers though the amount of information on her was tantalisingly small. A friend produced a book of old Vanity Fair material that included the first picture I saw of Florence. It was the famous portrait by Edward Steichen, the only full-page picture of a Black person to appear in that magazine in the Twenties. Despite all this I found that there had never been a biography of Florence Mills.
Having retired early (aged 55) I had completed a graduate diploma in professional writing and embarked on my first project (to do with chess.)
Now I decided it was more important to unravel the story of this enigmatic forgotten star of the Twenties. That was the start of a saga that has lasted eight years and is still going. It soon became apparent the information available from books was pitifully limited, mainly dealing with her later years of international fame and accounts of her extraordinary Harlem funeral.
I realized the only way to uncover the full story was to re-trace Florence Mills’ steps myself, consulting primary sources and talking to the few people left after 70 years who had known her. I traveled many times, always at my own expense, from my home base in Australia to Europe (London, Paris, Versailles, Brussels, Ostende, Berlin, Darmstadt and Baden Baden), USA (New York, Washington D.C., Atlantic City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Arizona, San Francisco, and Los Angeles) and Canada (Calgary), retracing her footsteps. In these places I undertook extensive research on primary sources and visited numerous major historic collections
Tucked away in archives in many of the cities I visited were dusty files and crumbling documents–vital clues to the phenomenal successes and events of Florence Mills’ life. For example:
In San Francisco, A dog-eared playbill from a 1919 visit by The Panama Trio, with whom she danced and sang
In Baden Baden, Germany, lists of arriving tourists that include Florence and her husband as well as later notorious Nazi leaders
In Harlem’s Schomburg Institute, the autographed menu given to Florence by Charles Lindbergh when she danced at his Paris reception after the historic flight
I have uncovered a considerable amount of unknown information about Florence Mills. I have also debunked a number of popular myths. Yet, the truth is much more remarkable than any myth. It shows that Florence Mills was much more than just a very talented entertainer. She was a truly remarkable human being. Hers is a story that cries out to be told.
Again in the words of Maya Angelou: “Harlem was Paris to the lost generation at the turn of the century. Some of these women, who have never been heralded must be saluted.”
And in the words of Charles Blockson, founder and curator of the Blockson Collection at Temple University: “[Florence Mills] life represents the missing link of the exciting years of the Harlem Renaissance.”
It is my ambition to help restore Florence Mills in the public eye and to her own people as a small return for the pleasure and inspiration I have received from Black culture and music.
Bill Egan–Master of Science (London University), Bachelor of Science in Economics – Honors (London University)Graduate Diploma in Computing (Canberra University), Graduate Diploma in Professional Writing (Canberra University)–is author of Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen. An Irish-born (1947) Australian citizen, independent researcher and sometimes freelance computer consultant. Has had a lifelong interest in jazz and African American culture. Prior to retirement was Head of the Computer Services Division of the Australian Bureau of Statistics in Canberra.
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updated 13 October 2007