The Forgotten Fame of Florence Mills

Portrait of Florence Mills
Florence Mills / By Edward Steichen, 1924 / Published in Vanity Fair, February 1925 / National Portrait Gallery/ © The Estate of Edward Steichen/Joanna T. Steichen

Florence Mills, whose name is now almost unknown, reigned over the 1920s as one of the most popular and sensational African American performers of the Jazz Age. When she sang, her beautiful, birdlike voice momentarily transcended the era’s racial barriers and left audiences of all colors enthralled.

This striking 1924 photograph of Mills, dramatically lit by a spotlight, highlights Edward Steichen’s mastery of light. Mills is wearing a costume from Dixie to Broadway, and her face is animated. A hat conceals her signature slick bobbed hair, which was imitated by Londoners and New Yorkers alike. Mills and actor and activist Paul Robeson were the only two African Americans whom Steichen photographed for full-page spreads in America’s most fashionable magazine, Vanity Fair. This original photograph, the issue of Vanity Fair in which it appeared, and other Steichen photographs are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, now through September 1 in “Edward Steichen: Portraits.”

Mills was born in Washington, D.C., in 1896. She showed talent as a toddler, made her professional debut at age seven, and soon became a fixture on the African American vaudeville circuit. The lead in 1921’s Shuffle Along brought Mills instant stardom and success in Harlem. A year later, The Plantation Revue opened on Broadway, exposing Mills’s talents to the theatrical community at large. Demand for Mills was insatiable and far-reaching, and she performed in Paris and London for the next two years.

The revue From Dixie to Broadway, starring Mills, became the first African American musical comedy to play on a Broadway stage. Next came Blackbirds, a revue written especially for Mills, which brought her immense renown throughout Europe. The Prince of Wales saw the show more than sixteen times, calling Mills “ripping.” Poet James Weldon Johnson said of “Little Twinks,” as she was affectionately known, “She could be risqué, she could be seductive; but it was impossible for her to be vulgar, for she possessed a naïveté that was alchemic. As a pantomimist and a singing and dancing comedienne she had no superior in any place or any race” (Black Manhattan, p. 199).

Sadly, Blackbirds was cut short as the thirty-two-year-old returned to Harlem to undergo surgery for appendicitis in late 1927. She died soon after the operation. Response to her death was overwhelming, with an estimated 150,000 mourners lining the streets of Harlem during her funeral procession.

Regrettably, no vocal recordings of Mills exist, and she died too early in her career to establish an ongoing legacy with students. These factors have caused the once-bright star to fade into near obscurity. The National Portrait Gallery’s curator of photographs, Ann Shumard, was immediately attracted to this lively image of Mills when she encountered it in a photography dealer’s inventory. After researching Mills’s biography, Shumard recognized the importance of adding the entertainer’s portrait to the National Portrait Gallery’s collection and was able to acquire it for the museum.