Hattie McDaniel was born in Wichita, Kansas, on June 10, 1893. She was the 13th child of a Civil War veteran who had sustained significant injuries and a domestic worker, according to Biography.com. In 1901, her family moved from Kansas to Denver, Colorado, which is where Hattie discovered her skill as a singer and performer.
By the time she was in high school, she started working as a professional singer, dancer, and actor with a troupe known as the Mighty Minstrels, spending the next several years performing with several different traveling minstrel groups. In 1924 she became the first woman of African descent to sing on the radio and began to establish a name for herself as a blues singer.
In 1924, the Great Depression left opportunities to perform pretty thin on the ground, so Hattie took a job as a ladies’ washroom attendant at a club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to give herself a steady income. According to History.com, the owners of the club heard her sing, and even though they usually only hired white performers, they made an exception for her. She performed there regularly for about a year before deciding she wanted to see if there were greener pastures in Hollywood.
When she got to LA, she quickly landed a part on a radio broadcast called The Optimistic Do-Nuts, and that led to other opportunities. In 1931, she was cast as an extra in a Hollywood musical. A year later, she was cast in another film, The Golden West, as a housekeeper. That was the first role of that type that Hattie accepted, but it was far from the last.
The simple truth is that there weren’t very many roles out there for African-American women, and most of them were servants. Wanting to continue her life as a performer, she continued to play roles as domestic workers. During the course of the 1930s, she took around 40 role playing cooks or house servants in movies.
In 1934 she landed a role in the film Judge Priest, even singing a duet with Will Rogers. The following year she played in The Little Colonel with Lionel Barrymore and Shirley Temple, in the role of Mom Beck. In 1936 she played Queenie in a production of Showboat.
Not everyone was as enamored with her roles as she was, however. Despite working steadily in the mostly-white film industry, she received criticism from organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They believed that she was contributing to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about black people.
Hattie’s response to such criticism was simple and straightforward, she said that she would rather play a maid than be one. Even if she was playing servants’ roles, she often played her roles in a way that made anything but subservient. In fact, they were often independent and sassy enough that it made some white audiences uncomfortable.
Of all those roles, one earned her an Oscar, making her the first person of African descent to ever be given an award by the Academy. That role was in 1939, when she played the loving but tough Mammy in Gone with the Wind, and she received the Best Supporting Actress award. The movie was based on Margaret Mitchell’s sweeping Civil-War era novel of the same name, which starred the likes of Vivian Leigh and Olivia De Havilland, and remains the highest-grossing film of all time when you adjust for inflation.
The speech she gave on receiving the honor netted her more criticism from the African-American community. Some in the African Americans community at the time thought that she shouldn’t have accepted a role playing not only someone who had been an enslaved person, but also who spoke nostalgically about the Old South. Ironically, despite the fact that she won an award for her role in the movie, neither she nor any of the other black actors from the film were allowed to go to its premiere, which was held in 1939 in Atlanta Georgia, at a theater on Peachtree Street.
As early as when she played Mom Beck in The Little Colonel, Walter White, who was the current head of the NAACP, was pleading for actors of African Descent to stop taking roles which were not only subservient, but who seemed to be content with their lot in life. Many in the African American community felt that such roles were demeaning in general. White was also putting pressure on Hollywood to start coming up with roles for African American actors which offered them a broader scope and gave them credit for having more diverse roles and abilities than were typically portrayed by the industry.
Despite her Oscar win, Hattie’s film career slowly wound down in the 1940s, and she eventually returned to radio in 1947, as the star of a national-aired program called the Beulah Show. She was again playing a maid, but did it in a way that went against the stereotypes the NACCP had issues with, even earning praise from the organization for her role.
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Hattie McDaniel died of breast cancer on October 26, 1952. After she passed away, she received several honors posthumously, including being given not one, but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and being inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in the 1970s. The US Post Office even issued a commemorative stamp in 2006 to honor the performer.