Flossie Turner Lewis started earning a living when she was just two years old. Dressed up in a satin evening gown, an up-do hairstyle and lots of makeup, she earned a spot singing and performing in carnival and minstrel shows with her family. She was dubbed "Little Hot Mama."
As a black entertainer in a pre-Civil Rights era, she spent her early life within a part of American history rarely told. With the help of Paula Meseroll, director of marketing and communications at Syracuse University, Lewis finally got the chance to tell her story. Lewis met Meseroll in 2002 at a National Literacy Conference. They spent the next eight years collaborating on Lewis’ biography, which was recently published by Stay Thirsty Media as a digital book. As part of Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, Sept. 13 through 19, Lewis visited Syracuse University to share her story.
Lewis, 77, was born to performers Hot Papa and Dolly Turner on August 19, 1933. Her parents were regular performers in carnival shows and "chitlin circuits" (a chain of music venues, mostly in the South, where black entertainers performed). She started imitating some of the other singers in the carnival minstrel shows, which usually featured an orchestra, chorus girls, comedians and singers.
“I came up under music, and I was copying what I heard,” Lewis told a group of SU students while visiting their music and gender class. “When I started singing, they knew I had an ear.”
Lewis said one day, when she was two, her parents made her up like a little woman and called her a midget, to avoid breaking any child labor laws.
“Once they found out I could hold a spot, which means the spotlight, well then automatically I became part of the show business.” This included receiving wages, which were given to her parents.
At the end of the season, all the entertainers got together and gave the most popular performer a nickname. That year, they gave little Flossie Lee Turner the name Little Hot Mama.
Little Hot Mama quickly made a name for herself. Her father taught her how to dance and occasionally she would be one of the highlighted names on poster advertisements. During the off-season, she performed with her father, a comedian, at speakeasies and nightclubs. She was even asked to lead a parade at a turkey festival one year.
“They put me in front of all these white turkeys. I’m deathly afraid of anything with feathers. But when the drums picked up, I started and I took them turkeys all over downtown,” she said.
Despite her popularity, life wasn’t easy for Lewis.
Her father was a gambler. The Turner family was poor, which was exacerbated by her father’s bad habit. In the first chapter of her book, Lewis recalls her dad hiding his earnings from his wife so he could go gamble. Meseroll said, “There were times that they starved on the road because her father was a gambler and gambled their money away.”
In addition to her family problems, Lewis had to deal with racism. She said one time when her family stopped in Mississippi for gas on their way to another show, she and her father had to perform before they could leave. Lewis said when they pulled into the station, the gas attendant asked her father, “What do you want boy?” Once he found out they were entertainers, Lewis said the attendant said, “Cut me a jig.” So, Little Hot Mama and her father got out of the car and danced. Then they got their gas and continued on their way.
In her later years, Lewis was witness to two different race riots, in Los Angeles and in Miami. Meseroll said during the Watts Riots of 1965 in Los Angeles, National Guard troops were actually posted on Lewis’ yard.
One of the greatest tragedies in Lewis’ life was when her mother passed away. Lewis was 27. “Everything I did, I did for her approval,” Lewis said. “If she was satisfied, I didn’t care what anyone else said.”
After that, she filled her mother’s role in the family acts, but had lost much of the joy in performing. Eventually, the Turner Family Revue broke up. Lewis and her children moved to California. She reinvented herself as a vocalist instead of a singer/dancer and performed under the name LeeAnn Lewis.
“If I flunked, I wouldn’t put any shame on the Turner family name,” she said.
Although Lewis was devastated in the wake of her mother’s death, she persevered. She raised five children on her own and achieved her lifelong dream of literacy.
A life on the road meant Lewis was never in one spot long enough to receive a good education. She said she could remember one school, but as soon as the snow melted, it was time to go back on tour. When she finally did a chance to go to school, Lewis was about 11, but she only had a second-grade education.
“I couldn’t do anything but write my name. I was embarrassed. I told my mother I didn’t want to go anymore,” Lewis said. She said her mom tried to teach her what she could, but aside from learning how to write her name, Lewis was illiterate.
“I couldn’t read a lick of music, but I got a ear,” Lewis said. She had to commit everything she heard to memory. When someone told her how an intro would work or the lyrics to a song, she had to memorize every single little part. At 77, she still remembers. While speaking to the SU students, she broke out in song, giving them a taste of her performing years. She never missed a beat, even though these songs are decades old.
Meseroll said because both Lewis and her sister were illiterate, they couldn’t send each other letters and lost touch for several years. Lewis kept her name in the phonebook in hopes that her sister might one day find her. Finally, her sister had a friend find Lewis in the phonebook, and they reconnected.
Now, all of Lewis’ siblings have passed. “Unfortunately, my brothers and sisters took illiteracy to the grave,” Lewis said.
But, Lewis’ son wouldn’t let his mother suffer the same fate. “After I got older, I had actually just given up. I had never tried to get the education earlier because I couldn’t afford it,” Lewis said. However, her son encouraged her to learn to read and write, and she did.
“It tremendously changed my life,” Lewis said. “It changed the way I think. It changed me. I felt like I could join in.”
At the age of 69, Lewis accepted the National Award for Excellence as the Outstanding Student of 2002 at the National Literacy Conference. There she met Meseroll, who has worked as a freelance writer and columnist.
“Her story was just riveting,” Meseroll said. A few months later, Meseroll called Lewis at her North Carolina home and asked if she wanted to work together to write Lewis’s story.
Meseroll said the book really shows the “indomitable spirit of Flossie.” “She had a horrible childhood and young adulthood, bad marriages, lived through race riots and she’s not bitter,” Meseroll said.
Lewis said it’s all about attitude. “A lot of things that you go through in life, if you have a positive attitude, you can help someone else.”
The digital book, Little Hot Mama: The Flossie Turner Lewis Story, can be purchased at Amazon.com or by visiting LittleHotMamaBook.com. Meseroll said 50 cents from the sale of every copy would be donated to The Flossie Turner Lewis Literacy Fund at ProLiteracy to support literacy efforts.