Hattie McDaniel was an American actress, singer-songwriter and comedienne. She is best known for playing Mammy in Gone with the Wind, for which she became the first African American to win an Oscar.
McDaniel was born in 1895 in Wichita, Kansas to Henry McDaniel, who had fought in the Civil War and Susan Holbert, who did domestic work and was a singer of religious music. Both of her parents had formerly been enslaved. In 1901, McDaniel’s family moved to Denver, Colorado where she attended the 24th Street Elementary School. She was one of the only two black students in her class. While at school, McDaniel began performing professionally as part of her brother’s troupe The Mighty Minstrels. In 1909 she dropped out of school to focus on her performing career.
In 1916, McDaniel’s brother died and his former troupe began losing money. McDaniel performed in a number of travelling minstrel groups and organised an all-women’s minstrel show. In 1920, McDaniel joined Professor George Morrison’s Melody Hounds, a touring black ensemble who she performed with for the next five years. In 1924, McDaniel became one of the first African American women to sing on U.S. radio when she sang with the Melody Hounds on station KOA in Denver. She continued to work the vaudeville circuit and honed her skills in singing and songwriting, establishing herself as a blues artist. From 1926 – 1929, McDaniel recorded songs on Okeh Records and Paramount Records in Chicago.
In 1929, the stock market crashed and McDaniel was forced to work as wash-room attendant and waitress in Milwaukee. She eventually convinced her boss to allow her to perform, despite the fact that the club only hired white performers. She performed there for a year before her brother, Sam and sister, Etta convinced her to move to Los Angeles. Shortly after moving to L.A., McDaniel appeared on her brother’s KNX radio show The Optimistic Do-Nots. She was a hit, and gained the nickname “Hi Hat Hattie” because she wore formal wear for her first performance. She went on to become the
program’s main attraction.
In 1932, McDaniel appeared in her first film role as a Southern house servant in The Golden West. Black actors were often relegated to servant roles – something that hasn’t changed that much since – and McDaniel appeared in the role of maid or cook in nearly 40 films during the 1930’s. This caused issues with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who felt she was perpetuating stereotypes. McDaniel responded by stating that she’d rather play the role of a maid in a film than be one in real life, and that she was able to subvert her roles in order to make white audiences uncomfortable.
During World War II, McDaniel served as chairman of the “Negro Division” of the Hollywood Victory Committee which provided entertainment at military bases. As the military were segregated, black entertainers were not allowed to serve on white committees. McDaniel and her friends, including actor Leigh Whipper and singer Lena Horne made numerous personal appearances at military hospitals and performed at United Service Organisations (USO) shows and war bond rallies to raise funds to support the war on behalf of the Victory Committee. McDaniel was also a member of American Women’s Voluntary Services and raised funds for the Red Cross relief programs along with Clarence Muse, one of the first black members of the Screen Actors Guild.
In 1939, McDaniel played the part of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. The movie was based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel, and continued to hold the record for highest-grossing movie of all time. McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar for her role, and accepted her award at the Ambassador’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub which was segregated at the time. producer David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone with the Wind had to call in a special favour so that McDaniel was allowed in the building, and she was relegated to a small table set against a wall instead of being allowed to sit with fellow nominated actors Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. McDaniel had also been barred from attending the film’s premiere at the Loew’s Grand Theatre on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia.
In the late 1940’s, McDaniel’s film career declined although she continued to play maid parts in films like 1946’s Song of the South, Walt Disney’s adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories which is now seen as incredibly racist. A year later, McDaniel returned to radio. She took over from Bob Corley, a white voice actor who’d been mimicking an African-American woman in playing the title character in Beulah, a comedy which was predictably about a maid. McDaniel’s role made her the first African-American woman to star in a radio show. This role allowed her to break racial stereotypes rather than reinforce them, and the NAACP approved of her portrayal of Beulah. She was later cast in the TV version of Beulah, but after shooting six episodes she fell ill.
In 1952, McDaniel died at the age of 57. McDaniel had requested to be buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, but was denied as it had a whites-only policy. Instead, McDaniel was buried at the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, the first in L.A. to allow all races. In 1999, a marble memorial to McDaniel was placed at Hollywood Forever following a campaign by her sister Etta’s grandson, Edgar Goff. Goff had devoted his life to keeping McDaniel’s memory alive. McDaniel’s Oscar was donated to Howard University, but went missing during the early 1970’s and has never been found.
McDaniel is honoured with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard for her contributions to radio and one at 1719 Vine Street for motion pictures. In 1975, she was posthumously inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. In 2006, she became the first black Oscar winner to be honoured with a U.S. postage stamp.