It’s the 70th anniversary of her passing!
Hattie McDaniel was born on June 10, 1893, Biography.com reports. She started as a vaudeville performer in variety shows across the country. By the 1920s, she had started making a name for herself, making history as one of the first Black performers to appear on “The Golden West,” a popular radio show. In 1940, she made history as the first Black person to receive an Oscar.
Despite her immense talent and pioneering contributions, McDaniel often dealt with backlash for the type of roles she played and constantly struggled with the racism she experienced from whites and the hate spewed at her by Black leaders.
Regardless, McDaniel pressed on, striving to be an inspiration for other Black youth and working to open doors for others in Hollywood. Her complicated legacy paved the way for Black actors in the industry and sparked a dialogue about diversity and inclusion in Hollywood.
“It’s exciting to be involved in telling the story of a woman who is a part of American history as well as movie history. Now, more than ever, in a still divisive time in our country’s relationships with race, the story of Hattie McDaniel is meaningful and current. Individuals such as Hattie McDaniel were trailblazers in their struggle for equality, and their stories need to be told for our country’s understanding of inclusiveness and tolerance. We are thrilled to have Raven Goodwin play Hattie McDaniel and provide an honest look into the triumphs and tragedies of her life,” Rick Romano, President of Global Genesis Group, told reporters.
“Hattie, you did it. Because of your legacy, we are able to write and portray OURSELVES in whatever light we choose. I am forever honored. I look forward to bringing this important historical and relevant life story to the screen,” Goodwin added.
To learn more about this remarkable actress, here’s everything you need to know about the first Black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel, courtesy of Vanity Fair.
She was the daughter of enslaved people.
Hattie was the youngest of 13 children born to parents Henry and Susan. Both of her parents were enslaved, her mother working domestic jobs and Henry serving in the Civil War as a part of the Tennessee 12th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, fighting at the 1864 Battle of Nashville.
Hattie and her 12 siblings were pioneers in the Denver, Colorado entertainment scene.
The McDaniel family often struggled to make ends meet, Henry working for decades to get support from the U.S. government after his military service. Hattie grew up singing in the choir and knew at an early age that she was destined for entertainment.
“I knew I could sing and dance. I was doing it so much that my mother would give me a nickel sometimes to stop,” McDaniel once recalled.
When the family moved to Denver, Colorado, the children became entertainment pioneers in the area, often putting on plays and reviews for the Black community.
She got her start in minstrel shows.
Hattie and her sister, Etta, formed the McDaniel Sisters Company in 1914, putting on an all-woman minstrel show. Hattie developed a quirky “Mammy” character, many minstrel shows serving as critiques and mocking spoofs of the ridiculous racial stereotypes held by whites at the time.
Hattie also started working as a blues singer.
In the 1920s, Hattie started branding herself as a blues singer, promoting herself as “The Old Pep Machine” and the “Sepia Sophie Tucker.” She worked the Black vaudeville circuit, recording a number of blues numbers including “Boo Hoo Blues,” and “Dentist Chair Blues.”
Despite her early success, Hattie still struggled to make ends meet on the road to stardom.
In between her work as a blues singer, McDaniel took odd jobs as a cook or domestic worker. While traveling in 1929 as a chorus member on the play Show Boat, McDaniel lost her job after the producer was forced to let workers go after the stock market crashed. Stranded in Milwaukee, she worked as a restroom attendant at a nightclub. One night she got a chance to perform, wowing audiences with her performance of “St. Louis Blues.” She headlined for two years at the club before it was shut down during The Great Depression. She then packed up with $20 to her name and traveled to Hollywood.
Hattie became the go-to actress for maids and “Mammy” characters.
While the roles were considered derogatory, after years of financial struggle, McDaniel made a conscious decision to use the influence she had to break down doors in the industry for other Black actors while also providing financial security for herself.
“I can be a maid for $7 a week or I can play a maid for $700 a week,” McDaniel once said.
She landed the role in Gone With the Wind through her brother.
McDaniel’s brother, Sam McDaniel, was also a successful actor and his friend, Bing Crosby, recommended McDaniel to David O. Selznick, the producer of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. He recommended they use the woman who played Queenie in Show Boat, not knowing Hattie’s name. Luckily for McDaniel, Selznick listened.
Hattie made history as the first Black person to win an Academy Award.
She became the first Black person ever to win an Academy Award on February 29, 1940 for her role in Gone With the Wind. She was not allowed to attend the movie’s premiere due to racism, but her historic Oscar win was still noted.
“I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you how I feel,” McDaniel told her peers during her acceptance speech at the Cocoanut Grove.
The leader of the NAACP and Hattie were at odds.
Walter White, the leader of the NAACP, had long rallied against the work of McDaniel, Lincoln Perry, also known as Stepin Fetchit, and actress Louise Beavers, the trio often playing similar minstrel words. While McDaniel tried fervently to explain her position, White continued to lambast her in the press while also attempting to ostracize her among the other Black Hollywood community in favor of actresses like Lena Horne, who he believed was the ideal Black film star to represent the community. At a 1942 NAACP meeting of nearly 10,000 delegates, White again dismissed McDaniel while praising Horne, explaining that he was in talks with execs to change the roles available to Black actors in the industry.
“I have no quarrel with the NAACP or colored fans who object to the roles some of us play, but I naturally resent being completely ignored at the convention. I have struggled for 11 years to open up opportunities for our group in the industry and have tried to reflect credit upon my race in exemplary conduct, both on-and off-screen,” said McDaniel.
The two remained at odds for years, McDaniel refusing to attend a summit White held in 1946 bringing together various Black actors.
“I cannot accept your invitation to break bread with Walter White for he has openly insulted my intelligence…God has endowed me with other talents which Walter White and no other persons know nothing of, and they are not menial as he has said,” she wrote in response to the invite.
She was an open supporter of Black issues.
McDaniel worked with the local chapters of the NAACP to save her mansion in Sugar Hill, known then as the Black Beverly Hills. She regularly hosted parties where close friends like Paul Robeson, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington were in attendance, the group regularly enjoying the respite away from the white commodification of their art. In 1945, when white homeowners tried to push residents out of Sugar Hill, McDaniel organized more than 200 supporters in court where lawyer Loren Miller successfully argued that residential segregation was unconstitutional.
Hattie also worked in radio before her passing.
In 1947, she took over the title role on the popular CBS radio show Beulah. She worked until her health complications with diabetes and breast cancer caught up to her. McDaniel passed away on October 26, 1952, and was buried in Rosedale Cemetery, a monument in her honor being placed in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in 1999.
Thank you for everything Ms. Hattie! Because of you, we can!
Here’s everything you need to know about the first Black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel. Photo Courtesy of Bettmann Archive/Getty Images/Entertainment Weekly