She Was The Queen Of Happiness


Performing was part of Florence Mills’ world from the time she was six and singing duets with her older sisters. During her short lifetime she had a huge impact on the world of vaudeville and theater. She was billed as the “Queen of Happiness” and certainly brought that to those who got to see her.

Mills was born to freed parents, Nellie Simon and John Winfrey on January 25, 1896. The family moved from Washington D.C. to New York City in 1905. She and her two older sisters formed “The Mills Sisters” and performed in Harlem theaters to help the family out financially. Later she was part of the Panama Four, a group of four female vaudeville actors.

“Dressing Room Club programme 1922 (Held at Moorland Spingarn Collection, Howard Uni, DC)”

“Dressing Room Club programme 1922 (Held at Moorland Spingarn Collection, Howard Uni, DC)”


Later she joined The Tennessee Ten, an all-black traveling show. During her time with that show she met and then married her husband Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson in 1921. Both were famous, but Mills’ career was their focus, with Thompson acting as her manager and promoter.

The same year as her wedding, Mills went to Broadway for the musical Shuffle Along, which also played across Europe. Mills received very positive reviews. Many cultural historians credit Shuffle Along as one of the starting points of the Harlem Renaissance. Mills and her husband were hired to work at the Plantation Club, and that turned into The Plantation Revue, her second Broadway show.

Her greatest exposure to the public came during the run of Dixie to Broadway. The musical had previously run as Dover to Dixie in Europe and had been racially balanced, including white singers, dancers, and actors from America and the UK as well as an African-American cast. However, the show was changed to Dixie to Broadway for a USA run and given an all-black cast, playing to both black and white audiences, though theaters were segregated. Mills was a part of both shows, and it fueled her fame further.

Most of the shows that Mills worked on Broadway, in Harlem, and around Europe were part of the popular black musical revues seen by black and white audiences over several decades. There were certainly racist elements to these shows, and the segregation of the audiences in America was fueled by racism, but the productions also gave black artists a way to create and influence the world around them. A lot could be conveyed with just a change of tone, a different step or two, and the attitude of someone of Mills’ caliber.



Mills was a supporter of equal rights for blacks. Her signature song, “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird,” was written by Johnston, Meyer, Clarke, and Turk; all four were well known for their writing of black musical revues. Mills was the first to perform the song, on October 29, 1924, during Dixie to Broadway. The direct lyrics are about the plight of blacks, but it was Mills’ engendering of emotion as she sang that impressed audiences and critics. Read these lyrics today, and see if they resonate with you, too.

Never had no happiness

never had no fun caress

I'm just a little o' beat up humanity, born on a Friday outcast

Blue as anyone can be

clouds all I ever see

And if the sun forsakes no one, why don't it shine on me

I'm a little blackbird looking for a bluebird ooh

you know little blackbirds, get a little lonesome too

I've been all over from east to the west

in search of someone to feather my nest

why can't I find one the same as you do

the answer must be

that I'm a hoodoo

I'm a little jazzboat looking for a rainbow through

building fairy castles, just like all the white folks do

forlorn and crying, my heart is sighing

but wise ol' Al says to keep on trying

I'm a little blackbird looking for a bluebird ooh

Mills died on November 1, 1927, after a prolonged illness that may have been related to her intense performance schedule. After 300 performances of her final show, Blackbirds, on the London stage, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. A surgery the following year resulted in an infection that took her life. All of Harlem was in mourning at her loss, with at least 3000 turning out for her funeral. Sadly, none of her recordings have survived well.