Hattie McDaniel Was Oscar's First Black Winner — Life and Death of the Pioneering Actress
Hattie McDaniel’s name will forever be in the pages of history as the first woman of color to win an Oscar. Back then, prejudice about race still ruled in the industry, and she wasn’t even allowed to sit with her castmates at the historic ceremony.
Hattie McDaniel’s story is one of resilience and hard work. She fought against racial and gender stereotypes at a time when even her own people criticized her choices in the entertainment industry.
She was often accused of perpetuating the stereotypes of the black servant in films and television. Still, McDaniel defended herself, pointing out that she’d rather play a maid than be one.
“Arthur Treacher is indelibly stamped as a Hollywood butler,” she once said, “but I am sure no one would go to his home and expect him to meet them at the door with a napkin across his arm.”
HATTIE MCDANIEL’S EARLY LIFE
Born on June 10, 1893, Hattie was the youngest of thirteen children born to Susan Holbert, a domestic worker, and Henry McDaniel, a Civil War veteran, in Wichita, Kansas. Both o Hattie’s parents were former slaves.
Sadly, her Oscar was received with mixed critics from her community, with the NAACP publicly disowning her.
Hattie’s family moved to Denver, Colorado, when she was still a child. She attended the 24th Street Elementary School and was one of only two black students in her classroom.
Hattie attended Denver Eat High School and joined a local minstrel troop. However, she dropped out of school at 15 years old, choosing to join her older brother’s performing troupe.
Later, Hattie and her sister Etta Goff organized an all-women minstrel show called the McDaniel Sisters Company. It was during these performances that Hattie allegedly developed her “Mammy” comedic character.
In the 1920s, Hattie landed a spot in Professor George Morrison’s orchestra. She toured with his and other vaudeville troops for a while, eventually getting invitations to perform at radio stations.
However, when she was short of gigs, Hattie took jobs as a maid or laundress to make ends meet. In one of those instances, she landed a job as the vocalist at Sam Pick’s Suburban Inn in Milwaukee.
HATTIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD
In the early 1930s’ Hattie’s brother and sister convinced her to move to Hollywood, where they had been landing minor roles in movies and radio for a while.
In an industry where African Americans’ roles were few and scarce, Hattie started landing several uncredited roles as the background maid in many films between 1932 and 1934, when she signed her first studio contract.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Hattie earned $300 for 11 days of work in Fox’s “Judge Priest,” a racist comedy starring comedian Stepin Fetchit.
A year later, Hattie shared the screen with Shirley Temple in “The Little Colonel,” and then went on to forge a friendship with Clark Gable after shooting “China Seas.”
She had steady work in films and television from 1935 to 1938, playing a total of 74 maids throughout her entire career, most of them uncredited.
In 1936, Hattie portrayed Queenie in the 1936 film adaptation of “Showboat.” It was that performance that caught the attention of Bing Crosby, who would later recommend her to producer David O. Selznick for “Gone with the Wind.”
HATTIE MCDANIEL IN “GONE TO THE WIND”
In 1938, Selznick started a country-wide search for an actress to play Mammy’s role in his upcoming film.
It is reported that even the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt came forward to recommend her maids. However, it was Hattie who won the role that would become the highlight of her career.
In the film, released in 1939, Hattie shared the screen with superstars Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh and gave life to the head servant of the iconic Scarlett O’Hara.
Hattie’s performance was lauded by both black and white critics, with the L.A Times writing of her acting that it was “worthy of Academy supporting awards.”
Hattie visited Selznick’s office in February 1940, armed with a series of reviews of the movie. The producer got the hint and submitted her performance for the Academy’s consideration.
HATTIE MCDANIEL’S OSCARS NIGHT
The 12th Academy Awards ceremony took place at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel, which was a segregated venue at the time. It didn’t allow the entrance of black people.
Selznick had to call in a favor, and although Hattie was allowed in, she couldn’t sit with the rest of her “Gone with the Wind” castmates.
Instead, she was pushed aside on a table on a faraway wall that she shared with her date and her white manager.
Still, when Hattie was called the Best Supporting Actress winner, she took the stage to a standing ovation as she delivered an emotional speech.
"I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry.”
Hattie was aware of the significance of her award, and she was determined to help other black creatives in the industry succeed.
Sadly, her Oscar was received with mixed critics from her community, with the NAACP publicly disowning her because they believed she was helping perpetuate racist stereotypes of black people in films.
Hattie defended herself in an article she wrote for the Hollywood Reporter in 1947. “I have been told that I have kept alive the stereotype of the Negro servant in the minds of theatergoers," she wrote, adding:
"I believe my critics think the public more naïve than it actually is.”
LIFE & CAREER AFTER THE OSCAR
With the resistance of the NAACP and other activist groups, Hattie’s career started to dim. She was typecast in Hollywood, and her most relevant role after the controversy was on Disney’s 1946’s “Song of the South.”
She also served as chairman of the Negro Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee during World War II, providing entertainment for soldiers.
The following year, Hattie made history once again when she became the first black woman to star on a radio show when she replaced Bob Corley as the title character in CBS’s “The Beulah Show.”
In 1951, Hattie was filming a TV adaption of Beulah when she suffered a heart attack and was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer. Hattie died on October 26, 1952, at age 57.
Hattie left two instructions in her will for her funeral. First, she wanted to be buried in a white casket and with gardenias in her hands and hair. She also wanted to be buried at the Holywood Forever Cemetery.
Sadly, the cemetery was exclusive for white people at the time, so Hattie’s rests ended at the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery instead.
As for her Oscar plaque—back then, the winners of the best supporting act didn’t receive statues—it has been missing since the late ’70s.
Hattie had left explicit instructions of donating the coveted prize to the Howard University. Sadly, the last time someone saw it, it had been removed from a glass case at the school’s drama department.
These days, there has been an uprise on interest on Hattie's life after director Ryan Murphy included her in his new Netflix show, "Hollywood," with Queen Latifah bringing the Oscar-winner to life.