Off to a great start! Part two of this series is a full two weeks late! My humblest apologies – I know you’ve been avidly staring at your computer screens, periodically clicking refresh for the last fourteen days. I hope it’s been worth the wait! You can find part one, about Mary Fillis and Dido Elizabeth Belle here.
Today we are looking at Kathleen Easmon and Florence Mills. Easmon is impossible to pin down: she was an artist, a performer, a designer, a philanthropist, an educator, a lecturer… basically the list goes on, and we’ll be exploring some of the many passions she channeled in the blog post today. Unlike Fillis and Belle who were centuries apart, this time, I’ve chosen Easmon a blog post companion who would have lived at the same time as her – Florence Mills. While both Easmon and Mills were contemporaries and were performers in one way or another, it’s unlikely the two ever met. Easmon might quite possibly have heard of Mills however, because Florence Mills was one of the most famous jazz performers and stars of her day.
Kathleen Easmon (1891 – 1924)
Kathleen Easmon I came across when I was researching composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who featured in an earlier blog post. Easmon and members of her family were close friends with the composer and Coleridge-Taylor even put several of Easmon’s poems to music, published as Five Fairy Ballads in 1909. There’s a record of it being performed in the grand venue of the Royal Albert Hall on 12th October 1914 – I wonder if she was able to watch it.
Kathleen Easmon was born in Accra in what is now Ghana in either 1891 or 1892. Although I only have time to talk about Easmon and touch on a couple of other relations, she came from a very impressive family, particularly in the field of medicine.
Kathleen Easmon took a slightly different route, however, and went into art and design. Her mother, Annette, brought her and her older brother, Charles, to England, probably in 1901. After finishing her secondary education at Notting Hill High School for Girls in West London, she went on to study fashion design at South Kensington College and then became an Associate of the Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1914. She also apparently became the first person from West Africa to receive a diploma from the RCA.
After that, she seems to have dabbled in a couple of different things. During the First World War, she tried her hand at theatre, performing in multiple productions, including in 1915 on the stage of Shaftesbury Theatre.
The performance was in aid of Indian troops in France and was also Easmon’s professional debut. She was watched by the Queen Mother, Queen Alexandra and other members of the Royal Family – not bad for a first outing! The title of the production was nothing more descriptive than “Oriental matinee” so possibly not the most politically correct performance, but it was apparently a huge success and raised a lot of money for the soldiers.
In 1917, she left London behind her and went to Freetown in Sierra Leone where many of her family were from and still lived. It was here that she became involved in a really inspiring project with her aunt, Adelaide Casely-Hayford, to establish a vocational school for girls in Freetown. This was at a time when educational opportunities for girls in West Africa were minimal, and Adelaide sought not only to provide an alternative future for these girls, but was also determined to produce the future leaders of Sierra Leone, and more widely, for Africa as a whole.
Nothing would stop these two women – they took their project to the people of Sierra Leone and to the world beyond! To raise money for the school, Easmon and Adelaide put on concerts in Freetown, possibly utilising Adelaide’s skill at the piano and Easmon’s experience on the London West End stage! In 1920, they embarked on a fund-raising lecture tour across the UK and the US. In the States, they gave talks about Africa, women’s rights and particularly the need for educational reform for African women. They also organised and took part in performances of songs and dances from different parts of Africa in various churches, schools and colleges, including at Howard University in Washington D.C.. It was during this tour that Easmon also met her future husband, Columbus Kamba Simango.
The campaign was successful and the school was launched as the Girls’ Vocational School in October 1923 with fourteen students. Aunt Adelaide was, of course, the headmistress, and she sounds like an amazing and inspirational woman to lead the school for these girls. She wanted the school uniform to be traditional Sierra Leonian dress to inspire a sense of national and cultural pride in her students, but the idea was rejected by the parents.
Undeterred, she found other ways to inspire the students about their Sierra Leonian heritage. The girls were taught African history, how to be financially independent and think for themselves. Several times a year, they hosted an Africa Day: pupils would wear traditional African clothing and there would be a joint opportunity for both celebration and learning, as the event featured various aspects of African history, folklore, songs, dance, and artwork.
In 1922, Adelaide had said, “my eyes were opened to the fact that the education meted out to [African people] had … taught us to despise ourselves… Our immediate need was an education which would instil to us a love of country, pride of race…”. She also said she ”was looking forward … to a new day, in which Africa shall be allowed to expand and develop, along with her own ideas and ideals,” and presumably she saw her girls at the forefront of that vision.
Sadly the school closed in 1940 (she was headmistress right up to the end!), but the legacy of her school paved the way for many more African-owned schools in West Africa.
So I’ve diverged from Easmon somewhat, but by the time the school opened, Easmon had left the project in her aunt’s very capable hands. In 1922, Easmon married Columbus Kamba Simango in Connecticut in the United States.
In an account of her wedding written by her aunt in the Sierra Leone Weekly News, Adelaide noted, “in her departure from the land of her birth West Africa indeed sustains a loss”. She assures the reader, however, that, “although the young lady has forsaken me, she has not forsaken the work which we left Africa to accomplish”! After her wedding, Easmon seems to have divided her time between the States, Europe and the UK. She was rubbing shoulders with influential people like W.E.B. Du Bois, historian and cofounder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and was involved in the organisation of the Sierra Leone Pavilion at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in London with her brother Charles.
The Sierra Leone pavilion was within the walls of a model West African village, which formed part of the exhibition site in Wembley. As well as helping organise the pavilion, Charles also researched and produced a small booklet about Sierra Leone Country Cloths which was on sale at the event. While as a whole, this was an extremely problematic exhibition, celebrating the British Empire and the benefits of the colonies to the British economy, the supposed aim of the Exhibition was to bring together all of the citizens of the Empire “to meet on common ground and learn to know each other”. While this seems nigh on impossible within an imperialist context, you would hope that with people like Easmon and her brother involved, there were at least some aspects of genuine cultural exchange and learning, which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It’s not clear how Easmon and Charles felt about their role in the Exhibition and about the Exhibition as a whole.
It was also at this time that Easmon’s life was sadly cut short. After travelling from Lisbon, where she had been on Exhibition business, to London, she was taken ill and admitted to Charing Cross Hospital. She had peritonitis (an inflammation of part of the abdomen). She had an operation but unfortunately never recovered. It was possibly caused by complications from an appendectomy she’d had less than a year previously. She died aged 32.
Florence Mills (1896 – 1927)
I would now like to introduce you to Florence Mills: one of the biggest celebrities of her day. It seems unbelievable that very few people know her name today.
She is easily one of my favourite people to talk about in my Women of Bloomsbury tours (where she lived in 1926-27). She sounds like she had such an energy and warmth about her, and also a fearsome determination – a star in the making, already in 1902, aged just 6 or 7, she had made her professional debut in a singing and dancing act with her siblings, Olivia and Maude, called the Mills Sisters.
Mills was born in 1895 in Washington DC, so she was only 5 years Easmon’s junior. Her father John was a carpenter and her mother, Nellie, a laundrywoman and both of them had been born into slavery. As mentioned above, Florence showed from a very young age that she was destined for stardom. Not only was she performing with her sisters as a young girl, but it was also age 6 that she was winning medals in amateur dance competitions and it was as young as 3 that she had first started showing a talent for performance.
It was then, in 1922, when she was in her 20s, that she made a name for herself in a show called the Plantation Revue. The success of the show meant that the following year, she, and the company she performed with, were brought to London to perform in a production called From Dover Street to Dixie at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus. The news that an all-Black cast was going to be performing in London stirred up outrage from the entertainment unions who complained to London County Council and the press. Florence Mills and her company were eventually allowed to perform, but sadly it came with the compromise that an all-white British cast would perform the first half and Mills and her African-American colleagues would perform in the second. Thankfully, not everyone felt the same way, and the show was a hit. C.B. Cochran who had launched the London show, described her in his autobiography in 1925: “She controlled the emotions of the audience as only a true artist can… That night, and every night she appeared, Florence Mills received an ovation each time she came on the stage – before every song she sang. That is a tribute which in my experience I have never known to be offered to any other artist.”
She returned to England in 1926 for an 11 month run of Blackbirds which toured in London and Paris. It had been born out of a show called From Dixie to Broadway, which had debuted in New York, becoming the first African American musical comedy to play on a Broadway stage. It was in both of these productions that Florence performed “I’m a little blackbird, looking for a bluebird”, a song which was written specifically for her and became one of her most popular hits – unfortunately no recordings of this or her singing at all are known to exist which seems like such a shame with the way everyone raved about her voice! It was this period in London where she lived first in Mecklenburgh Square and then Gower Street. Similar racist opposition rose its head this time round, but they weren’t successful. To say that the show was a success would be an understatement, and Florence Mills became the name on everybody’s lips.
It was known as Blackbirds mania – anything Mills wore or did became the height of fashion. Blackbirds parties were all the rage and everyone wanted Mills at their soiree. Part of this obsession was down to royal patronage – Edward Prince of Wales was a huge fan, believed Mills was absolutely “ripping”, and is recorded by newspapers at the time as having been to see the play 22 times. I’m sure there was an element of the exoticised in all of this attention as well, and there were certainly still those opposed to her based on the colour of her skin, but there is also an amazing record of what Mills’ performance meant to members of the Black community in London as well.
Recently discovered by University College London was a fan letter from a woman called Maria Davis, who lived in Holborn. She wrote to Mills on 12th September 1926, the very next day after she’d seen her on stage. She wrote: “never there could be a heart [in the audience] prouder than mine”. She thanked Mills and the company for showing “the white people who think we are nobody because we are colour that we can stand side by side and beat them at their own game”. She praised Mills as “a daughter of the motherland.”
Not content with just performing flat out in a West End show, while in London, she also promoted the work of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which if you remember from earlier had been founded by W.E.B. Du Bois – also a friend of Kathleen Easmon. Mills also staged extra performances with the rest of the cast, on top of their West End gig, to support local causes: for wounded servicemen and to raise funds for a children’s hospital in Hackney.
In 1927, Mills had to return to Harlem for appendicitis surgery (also a strange parallel with Easmon) – by this point, she been performing constantly for five years, never missing a performance. She must have been utterly drained – she never fully recovered from the surgery and died shortly after the operation. For her funeral procession, at least 100,000 people are thought to have lined the streets of Harlem. Coupled with the 5,000 crammed into the church for her funeral, plus the 200-piece orchestra and 600-voice choir, just shows what a phenomenal influence she must have been.
“I feel more at home here [in London, compared to Paris]. There is a ring in the London crowd that you don’t hear anywhere else – like the ring in the English sovereign.”Florence Mills
- Easmon Family History, (accessed 19/10/2020)
- ‘Kathleen Mary Easmon Simango’, Wikipedia, (accessed 16/10/2020)
- ‘Black Women of World War One’, The History Press, (accessed 16/10/2020)
- ‘Kathleen Mary Easmon (Simango)’, Historycal Roots, (accessed 17/10/2020)
- L. MacDonald, 1915 The Death of Innocence, (Baltimore, 2000)
- ‘British Empire Exhibition’, Wikipedia, (accessed 22/10/2020)
- ‘1924 British Empire Exhibition’, Open University, (accessed 25/10/2020)
- ‘The British Empire Exhibition, 1924/25’, Brent Council, (accessed 25/10/2020)
- G. Romain, Race, Sexuality and Identity in Britain and Jamaica, (London, 2017)
- B. Egan, Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen, (Lanham, 2004)
- ‘Drawing Over The Colour Line’ lecture, University College London, 11/10/2012, (accessed 27/09/2020)
- ‘Florence Mills’, Wikipedia, (accessed 21/11/2020)
- ‘The Forgotten Fame of Florence Mills’, National Portrait Gallery (Washington), (accessed 30/11/2020)
- ‘Florence Mills, 1896-1927)’, Black Past, 22/09/2018, (accessed 30/11/2020)