SCHOOL DAY LIVE | RESOURCE GUIDE
THE QUEEN OF HAPPINESS: FLORENCE MILLS
Tuesday, February 11 at 10:30 AM & 12:30 PM
(Most appropriate for Grades 3 - 12)
The immense talents and philanthropy of Florence Mills (1896 – 1927) earned her the nickname, the Queen of Happiness. Though her singing was praised by thousands of fans in the U.S. and in Europe, no recording of it exists, leaving us to imagine the sound of a voice that delighted so many.
Performed by LaFrae Sci and Groove Diplomacy, The Queen of Happiness: Florence Mills, is an immersive, multimedia musical experience that will introduce young audiences to Mills, the Harlem Renaissance, and the music connected to Mills’ life and the times in which she both lived and inspired.
The Queen of Happiness: Florence Mills is produced by the Apollo Theater Education Program.
The Queen of Happiness
Florence Mills in 'Dover Street to Dixie' at the London Pavilion, 1923
Florence Mills was one of the most influential, loved, and sensational performers of all time. Born as Florence Winfrey on January 25, 1896, Mills began dazzling audiences as a singer at the age of six. Although she began her career with her two older sisters, she was tenacious in her quest to entertain and continued to hone her craft, even after they concluded their vaudeville act. Taking performing by the reins, she joined the traveling black show Tennessee Ten. It was on the road that she met her husband Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson, an acrobatic dancer. In 1921, Mills broadened her repertoire by becoming a headliner in the widely successful Broadway musical, Shuffle Along, which was written by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.
Mills’ ability to delight her audiences with her performances earned her the nickname, the “Queen of Happiness.”
Mills boldly continued breaking racial barriers by performing in venues in London, Paris, and other areas of Europe. As one of the only two African Americans of her time to be photographed in a full-page of Vanity Fair, the entertainer also set trends in the world of fashion. Her drive and talent eventually landed her a headliner spot at the prestigious Palace Theatre in Midtown, New York City in 1924. Two years later, the hit show Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds ushered in her international star status. Throughout her career, Mills centered her work on advocating for racial equality. Songs such as “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird” demonstrated her quest to be considered an equal to her white counterparts. This song captured her activism toward the pursuit of happiness for all people regardless of race or gender.
The trendsetter was forced to cut her performances short after she became ill in 1927. Devastatingly, Mills passed away after undergoing an operation in New York City in November of the same year. Mills’ sudden death at the age of 31 left her fans shattered. Thousands visited the funeral home to pay their respects and thousands of supporters lined the streets of Harlem, New York City for her funeral procession.
Although there are no recordings of her songs, Mills’ soft birdlike voice stayed in the forefront of her supporters’ minds. Her enchanting performances created a lasting impression on many and inspired several works in her honor. Among the artists who were so deeply touched by Mills is Duke Ellington. In 1928, Ellington created the jazz composition “Black Beauty” which was inspired by Mills’ life. “Black Beauty” became one of the signature songs for the composer, pianist, and jazz orchestra leader.
Friend of Duke Ellington, Constant Lambert, was deeply moved by Mills’ performance in Dover Street to Dixie at the London Pavilion in 1923. After hearing of her death, Lambert wrote the tribute piano piece “Elegiac Blues.” Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller also celebrated Mills’ life in his song “Bye Bye Florence.”
The singer’s reach did not stop at the creation of numerous songs and compositions created in her honor. Mills even influenced the commission of The Florence Mills Theatre, which opened in December 1930 and stood in South Central Los Angeles until it was demolished in 2013.
Mills’ legacy continues through the contributions her work made to the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the “New Negro Movement.” This period, from roughly the 1920s to 1930s, marked a celebration of culture, music, art, and stage performance. With a great number of African Americans beginning to call Harlem home during the Great Migration from the south to the North, Harlem morphed into a place for an artistic explosion. African Americans who were seeking a new start and a life outside of the racism they faced in the south found solace in Harlem. Alongside Mills, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Aaron Douglass, and many other artists created a new narrative for Harlem. The Harlem Renaissance ushered in new fashion and a distinction of esteem for African American artists.
Photograph of Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller, Maud Cuney-Hare, 1936
Duke Ellington at the Hurrican Club, 1943
The Queen of Happiness: Florence Mills Teacher’s Guide is designed to support educators in inspiring their students to use their voice and address meaningful issues within their community. It is created as a framework for students to better understand the racial, gender, and socioeconomic divides that ushered in the Harlem Renaissance. With this framework, students can be stimulated to consider Florence Mills in the scheme of her historic and biographical context and the ways in which her work as a performer shattered glass ceilings as well as inspired countless individuals. The activities and assignments teachers may decide upon for this lesson can serve as a building block to motivate students to develop their voice for a variety of settings and topics.
Download the appropriate guide for your grade level below:
School Day Live: About the Artist
Lefrae Sci & Groove Diplomacy
Artistic Director of Groove Diplomacy Inc, LaFrae Sci is an award-winning and internationally acclaimed multi-instrumentalist, educator, and composer. Her work transcends genres, cultures, and boundaries, yet it authentically and reverentially embraces many creative traditions.
She is a bold conceptualist, an in-demand drummer, a jazz musician, an electronic musician who builds her own synths, a musical ambassador, a podcaster, a band leader, and a film composer. To date, her professional career spans 30 years and she has shared her purposeful creativity with 38 countries.
Bedrock to her artistry is the roots and the fruits of the blues from spirituals to afro futuristic soundscapes. As a composer, she writes for film, theater, and large and extended jazz and classical orchestras.She is able to write for any instrument, and her creative range spans immersive and ambisonic music, blues, jazz, classical and orchestral music, various ethnomusicological traditions, rock, pop, hip-hop, and electronic music.
As an educator, LaFrae has curated potent youth educational performances at the Apollo; she has worked as an educational consultant for Jazz at Lincoln Center for JALC’s Middle School Jazz Academy Brooklyn Chapter; and she is also founding teaching member of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in N.Y.C.