Florence Mills & The Harlem Renaissance
A little known figure from the Harlem Renaissance is Florence Mills.
In our efforts to expose children to a variety of music, we are learning about women composers in our SQUILT LIVE! lessons.
These blog posts are a free resource for anyone who wants to learn more about women in music.
Born in Washington, DC in 1896 to formerly enslaved parents, Florence would leave a big impression on the Harlem Renaissance despite his short life.
She was "Harlem's Little Blackbird", who performed all the way from Broadway to London. Considered the preeminent dancer and singer of the Harlem Renaissance, she deserves to be remembered with names like Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, and Zora Neale Hurston.
What Was The Harlem Renaissance?
In our SQUILT LIVE! lessons we have been learning about Florence and her role in the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance lasted from the 1910s to the 1930s. It was a period of intense creativity in celebration of African American heritage.
African Americans challenged the thinking of many white Americans towards black Americans. They refused to be treated as if they were not equal. They refused to just copy the sorts of writing, art and music that white Americans did.
They wanted to celebrate the fact that their African culture had survived through the terrible years of slavery, and was being “reborn".
To learn more about The Harlem Renaissance, students may want to read the book What Was The Harlem Renaissance?
Florence Mills and The Harlem Renaissance
Florence Mills had her professional debut at age seven. She obtained the lead role in the Broadway production Shuffle Along, which brought her instant stardom and fame in Harlem.
She was then cast in From Dixie to Broadway, which became the first African American musical comedy to play on a Broadway stage.
Next came Blackbirds, a show written especially for her, which brought her immense fame throughout Europe. She became known as The Queen of Happiness because of her bubbly personality and humor.
Tragically, she died in 1927 at the young age of 31 - due to tuberculosis. No vocal recordings of her voice exist, and she has faded into obscurity. Through our study of Florence Mills, however, we hope to keep her memory alive!
There are also many recordings of songs she performed while alive - performed by other artists. Her most famous song, I'm a Little Blackbird, can be heard here.
A Read-Aloud About Florence Mills
In our SQUILT LIVE! lesson I shared this wonderful book with the children - and I'd like to share it with you here.
Notice how beautiful the illustrations are in this story.
The SQUILT LIVE! students made a comparison between the illustrations done by Christian Robinson and an artist we studied in our class - William Johnson. Take a look at The Blind Singer and you'll notice the similarities, too. This work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
Clearly, as you can see from the picture below, this art struck a chord (no pun intended!) with one of the students!