Born on June 10, 1895 in Wichita, Kansas; Hattie McDaniel was an American actress who became the first African-American to win an Academy Award. The daughter of former slaves, she was the youngest of 13 children. Henry McDaniel, her father, had fought in the Civil War with the 122nd USCT and then became a Baptist minister that frequently played the banjo during performances in minstrel shows. Her mother, Susan Holbert, was a gospel singer.
In 1900, the McDaniel family moved to Colorado, arriving first in Fort Collins, then a short time later, settling in Denver. Hattie was enrolled in the 24th Street Elementary School, one of only two black students in her class. This was followed by two years at Denver East High School. Having inherited her mother’s talent for singing, Hattie sang at church and school, as well as home; with her skills helping her to gain popularity among her classmates.
Hattie’s professional career began while she was in high school. After two years, she left and joined her father’s minstrel troupe full time. The training she received here helped her to become a member of Professor George Morrison’s orchestra, known as the Melody Hounds, in 1920, a touring black ensemble. For the next five years, she toured with Morrison and other vaudeville troops.
In 1925, Hattie became the first black American woman on the radio when she was invited to perform on KOA Denver. She then returned to the vaudeville circuit for a few more years. Whenever work was slow, she gained employment as a restroom attendant in an effort to supplement her income.
From 1926 to 1929, both Okeh and Paramount Records produced a number of Hattie’s songs in Chicago. Of the ten songs she recorded, only four were issued. During the Depression, Hattie was hired as a regular vocalist to perform at Sam Pick’s Club in Milwaukee.
While Hattie was busy in Milwaukee, her brother, Sam, and sister, Etta, had moved to Los Angeles and found some minor movie roles. Sam was also part of a radio show on KNX known as The Optimistic Do-Nuts, in addition to playing the role of a porter on I Love Lucy. Hattie’s siblings were able to convince her to move to Los Angeles and join them, where she was given the opportunity to be part of her brother’s radio show. She was an instant sensation and received the nickname, “Hi-Hat Hattie,” due to the formal attire she wore for her first performance on KNX.
McDaniel’s screen debut occurred during 1931 when she won a part as an extra in a Hollywood musical. Her next role was that of the housekeeper, Mammy Lou, in The Golden West. Though a member of the cast, Hattie’s name was not displayed in the credits. McDaniel continued to win bit parts here and there; however, screen work for blacks at this time was hard to come by. Thus, Hattie continued to work odd jobs in an effort to support herself. Her second film appearance was in Mae West’s film, I'm No Angel (1933). Here she was one of the black maids West camped it up with backstage.
In 1934, Hattie joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Her membership in the SAG not only helped to get her better parts, but screen credits as well. She first received the part of a singing duet with Will Rogers in John Ford’s Judge Priest. This was followed by the role of “Mom Beck” in The Little Colonel. Here Hattie starred opposite Shirley Temple, Lionel Barrymore and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Her performance captured the attention of numerous Hollywood directors and before long, the offers were pouring in.
Hattie McDaniel’s acting skills won her the friendship of many of Hollywood's top stars; among them Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Shirley Temple, Ronald Reagan, Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, and Clark Gable.
The role offered to Hattie McDaniel in 1939 would be her biggest one ever; that of “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. When tryouts began for the role of Mammy, the competition for the role was almost as stiff as that for Scarlett O'Hara. Eleanor Roosevelt had written to film producer David O. Selznick to request he cast her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, in the part.
McDaniel gave herself little hope about being chosen for the role; due to the fact her prior appearances had been more of a comedy actress. She did, however, have a major trump card she was not aware of at the time; Clark Gable. Having starred with Hattie before, Gable is said to have recommended McDaniel for the role. She also helped level the playing field through her own efforts by arriving for her audition dressed in an authentic maid's uniform, and “the rest is history”.
Unfortunately, “Jim Crow” made his unwelcome presence known during the film’s Atlanta premier in 1939 at the Loew’s Grand Theatre.
Gone With the Wind was scheduled to premier on Friday, December 15, 1939. Prior to that date, the film’s entire group of black actors were advised they would not be allowed to attend, their names would be excluded from the souvenir program, and their images were also banned from appearing in advertisements for the film which were used for promotion in the South. Despite the fact studio head David Selznick requested McDaniel be permitted to attend, MGM advised against it due to Georgia's segregation laws. Clark Gable then voice a threat to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel was allowed to attend; however Hattie convinced him to go without her.
Jim Crow laws may have prevented McDaniel from attending the Atlanta premiere; however, she was on hand for the film's Hollywood debut on December 28, 1939 – and, upon Selznick's insistence, Hattie’s picture was prominently featured in the film’s program.
As the house servant whose responsibility it was to rein in Scarlett O’Hara as much as possible, Hattie’s performance won her an Oscar, the first black American to accomplish that feat. "I loved Mammy," McDaniel shared when she spoke to the white members of the press regarding her role. "I think I understood her because my own grandmother worked on a plantation not unlike Tara."
Hattie’s role in Gone with the Wind alarmed many in the Southern audiences; with numerous complaints registered regarding the fact Mammy’s character was too "familiar" with her white owners. It was later pointed out that McDaniel's character reflected Mammy's persona in Margaret Mitchell's book, and within both the text of the book and film, despite the fact Mammy scolds the teenaged Scarlett, she never crosses Mrs. O'Hara.
Gossip columnist Louella Parsons, had this to say about Hattie on Oscar night, February 29, 1940: "Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar by her fine performance of 'Mammy' in Gone with the Wind. If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen's taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor.”
Rather than the typical gold statue, McDaniel received a plaque-style Oscar, approximately 5 1/2 x 6 inches in size. This was the award normally presented to all Best Supporting Actors and Actresses at that time.
Though she was allowed to attend the gala and personally receive her award, Hattie still could not escape the fact neither the film industry, nor the country, had yet to throw off the grip of racism. As a result, McDaniel and her escort were seated at a segregated table for two, set apart from her Gone With the Wind colleagues.
Blacks everywhere rejoiced over the personal victory McDaniel enjoyed when she won the Oscar; but also considered it to be bittersweet. The way they saw it, Gone With the Wind was a celebration of the Old South slave system and a condemnation of the forces which sought to destroy it. McDaniel’s Oscar seemed to reflect to them the idea only those who would not protest Hollywood's systemic use of racial stereotypes would find success.
Hattie McDaniel found success in films, but not in love. Her first husband, George Langford, died soon after she married him in 1922, with her father’s death taking place a short time later. In 1938, she married Howard Hickman in 1938. The marriage was short-lived and ended in divorce later that year. James Lloyd Crawford, a real estate salesman, became Hattie’s third husband in 1941.
According to Donald Bogle’s book, Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams, McDaniel was full of joy when she confided to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in 1945 that she was pregnant. Hattie soon began to buy baby clothes and outfit a nursery in her home. She later discovered, however, the pregnancy to be false. Understandably, this threw McDaniel into a depression. Hattie never had children and after four and a half years of marriage, divorced Crawford in 1945. The reason for the divorce centered primarily on the fact Crawford had been jealous of her successful career, and that he had once threatened to kill her.
Hattie would remarry one more time, on June 11, 1949, in Yuma, Arizona. Her last husband was interior decorator Larry Williams. As with all but the first, this marriage ended in divorce as well. In 1950, Hattie testified the five months the couple spent together were spoiled due to "arguing and fussing". McDaniel was in tears as she testified to the fact Williams tried to provoke dissension among her radio show cast and interfered with her work. "I haven't gotten over it yet," she said. "I got so I couldn't sleep. I couldn't concentrate on my lines."
In 1942, McDaniel purchased a home in West Adams Heights. The structure was white, two-story, and contained seventeen-rooms. The home’s floorplan included: a large living room, dining room, drawing room, den, butler's pantry, kitchen, service porch, library, four bedrooms and a basement. Each year McDaniel threw a Hollywood party which was always attended by the king of Hollywood, Clark Gable.
During the mid-1940s, Hattie continued to appear in numerous films, normally in the stereotypical role of blacks during that era, mostly as servants or slaves. Sam McDaniel, her brother, also appeared in films; playing the role of a butler in the 1948 Three Stooges’ film Heavenly Daze.
Though many actors such as Hattie were content to assume these parts, members of the progressive post-war black community took issue with it and ridiculed McDaniel and others for playing the roles. The president of the NAACP that year, Walter White, began to plead with black actors not to accept these roles, believing them to be derogatory towards the black community. He also reached out to movie studios to create a larger variety of roles for black actors other than those of typical stereotypes.
Along with her acting in numerous films, McDaniel professional career included being a professional singer-songwriter, stage actress, radio performer, comedian, and television star. She appeared in more than 300 films; however, she received screen credits for only 80.
After filming several episodes of The Beulah Show in 1951, McDaniel learned she had breast cancer. By the spring of 1952, she was too ill to work. Hattie was 57 when she died on October 26, 1952 in the hospital on the grounds of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills. Following her death, thousands of mourners turned out to celebrate her life and achievements. McDaniel stated her final desires in her will: "I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket and a pillow of red roses. I also wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery."
Though the flowers, clothing and casket requests were fulfilled, her desire to be buried in The Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard did not occur. The resting place of movie stars such as Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and others refused to allow Hattie to be buried there, simply due to the fact Hattie was black and racial segregation would not allow her in. Instead, she was placed in Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, listed as her second choice.
Tyler Cassidy became the new owner of the Hollywood Cemetery in 1999 and renamed it Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Tyler offered to have McDaniel’s remains moved to and buried in the cemetery; however, her family declined the offer.
Hollywood’s Walk of Fame boasts two stars for Hattie McDaniel. The first one is located at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard for the contributions she made to radio. The second is found at 1719 Vine Street which honors her work in motion pictures. In 1975, Hattie was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. The US Postal Service honored her with a postage stamp in 2006 for being the first black to win an Oscar.
* * * * *
“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”
—Hattie McDaniel: Acceptance Speech delivered on February 29, 1940, at the 12th Annual Academy Awards
"Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one." Hattie McDaniel