the first black
to win an Academy Award
Hattie McDaniel was born in
Wichita, Kansas, on
June 10, 1895, the youngest of 13 children. When
she was 15, the family moved to Denver, Colorado.
At age 17, Hattie sang her
first song over the radio. At 18, she won a gold
medal from the Women's Christian Temperance Union
for reciting "Convict Joe." After that,
she began traveling in the South, playing for the
Shrine and Elks circuits. When she wasn't acting,
she would often take a job in a kitchen or
laundry to make ends meet.
In 1931, McDaniel went to Los
Angeles, California, where she got a job on a
variety show on radio station KNS. Thinking that
the cast would wear formal dress, Hattie showed
up in the studio for her first appearance wearing
an evening gown; everyone else was wearing street
clothes. Tom Breneman, the show's announcer,
commented: "Well, look at our High Hat
Hattie!" The nickname stuck, and she would
later star in a radio show titled Hi-Hat
Hattie. She also played on the Amos and
Andy and Eddie Cantor radio shows. Between
1947 and 1951, she played the title character in
the radio show Beulah; she played the
same part on television, in 1950.
McDaniel made her movie debut
in 1932, playing a maid in The Golden West.
Her maid-mammy characters became more and more
assertive, beginning with Judge Priest
(1934) and Alice Adams (1935), until The
Mad Miss Marton (1938), in which she
actually tells off her socialite employer, played
by Barbara Stanwyck. Her most famous maid-mammy
role was in Gone with the Wind (1939),
in which she was, in a number of ways, superior
to most of the white folk around her. McDaniel
won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her
role, making her the first black to win an
Academy Award. She was also the first black to
attend the Academy Awards ceremony as a guest,
not a servant.
Although McDaniel's maid-mammy
characters made her famous, they also made her
subject to harsh criticism. Activists called her
portrayals "demeaning," and the National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People
(NAACP) launched a letter-writing campaign that
made studios uneasy. Declaring that her
"worst enemies were (her) own people,"
McDaniel snapped back that "I'd rather play
a maid than be one." In another notable
quote, McDaniel said "Why should I complain
about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I
didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one."
Unfortunately, the criticism and letter-writing
campaigns made it increasingly difficult for
McDaniel to get good roles. Although she would
appear in more than 300 films throughout her
career, none of her other roles would approach
the quality of Gone with the Wind.
McDaniel died of breast cancer
on October 26, 1952. The first African-American
to be buried in Los Angeles' Rosedale Cemetery,
her funeral was attended by some 3,000 persons,
black and white.
The human "Mammy"
character in the Tom and Jerry cartoons was based
on Hattie McDaniel.
National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People
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