Hattie McDaniel was a renowned actress, entertainer and radio performer. She was the youngest of thirteen children born to Henry and Susan Holbert on June 10, 1895 in Wichita, Kansas. Her father was a Baptist minister and minstrel performer, and her mother was a gospel singer. The family moved to Denver when Hattie was a child where she attended both elementary and high school. At school, she was one of the only two black children. Before finishing high school, however, she quit in order to train as an entertainer in her father’s minstrel troupe. She was very fond of singing and dancing, and performed at school, church and in the troupe. In 1920, she joined Professor George Morrison’s orchestra and toured with them for 5 years. During this time, she was invited to perform on radio, making her the first African American woman to sing on the radio in the U.S. She also recorded many of her songs with Okeh Records and Paramount Records.
After the stock market crash in 1929, everyone was desperate for work. In order to supplement her income, Hattie McDaniel often took on all types of work such as washroom attendant, waitress and other odd jobs. She found work as a singer at a club in Milwaukee, where she became a regular performer. A couple of years later, she moved to Los Angeles where two of her siblings Sam and Etta were working in films. Sam managed to get Hattie a part in a radio show called The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour. She also found work in films, her roles ranging from very minor ones to leading roles. Some of her films include The Golden West, I’m No Angel, The Little Colonel, Judge Priest, China Seas, Murder By Television, Vivacious Lady, Show Boat, Saratoga, The Shopworn Angel and Alice Adams.
Her most well known role is that of “Mammy” in the film “Gone With The Wind” starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Her character was that of a sassy maid to the film’s heroine. The competition for the role was quite intense, and even Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to the film’s producer, asking for her own maid to be cast in it. However, Hattie was able to impress everyone with her audition, especially as she had even dressed for the part. Because of Jim Crow laws in the South, Hattie and other black members of the cast were unable to attend the premiere in Atlanta, and neither were they featured on the promotional brochures. However, Hattie did attend the Hollywood premiere and at the 1940 Academy Awards, she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actresses, making her the first African American to win an Oscar. She was also the first African American to be nominated.
Although Hattie McDaniel was an acclaimed actress, she was often criticized for playing roles that represented African Americans in a negative light, such as that of servant or maid. The President of the NAACP himself urged Hattie to stop accepting these roles, but she asserted that she would do as she chose. Eventually, as the Civil Rights Movement progressed, such stereotypical roles began to fade out and Hattie reverted to being a radio performer. She played a lead role in a CBS radio show called “The Beulah Show” which was later adapted for television. In 1951, she suffered a heart attack and in 1952 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She passed away the same year in October at the age of 57. She is widely acclaimed as one of the trend setting actresses of her generation, and could carry both serious and comedic roles equally well.