Hattie McDaniel: A barrier breaker who ran into walls until death

Oscar Winner

1854

1940: Hattie McDaniel played “Mammy” in the motion picture “Gone With the Wind.” (AFRO Archive)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

Hattie McDaniel was the first Black woman to win an Academy Award for her role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind, in 1939.  However, success did not beat segregation at that time. McDaniel could not even attend the Gone With the Wind premiere, held at an all-White theatre in Atlanta and had a special segregated table at the Oscars, a special dispensation for the star, who was to be honored that night at the Ambassador Hotel’s Coconut Grove Club, which also didn’t allow Blacks.

Imagine opening doors, but not being able to sit in the room. Despite her successful career, McDaniel found herself breaking barriers and still not fully able to appreciate the fruits of her labor due to the color of her skin.  But racial discrimination did not stop the actress and singer from pursuing and thriving in the industry, even if at hard times she worked as maids.

The daughter of former slaves, and one of 13 children, McDaniel’s life growing up in Fort Collins and Denver, Colorado was filled with hard work and talent that led her to a successful arts career.

She performed with her brother Otis McDaniel’s carnival minstrel show, developing her skills as a singer and songwriter before 1914, when she went on to form her own, all-female minstrel with her sister Etta (McDaniel) Goff, who later starred in featured films as well. However, when Otis died, McDaniel hit hard times until 1920 when she began working in a Black touring company.  

In addition, the trailblazing McDaniel began recording songs and finding some radio success, but when the stock market crashed she found herself from the stage and studio to the washroom.  

McDaniel moved to Los Angeles in 1931 to join some of her siblings, including Etta, but initially had to continue doing maid and domestic duties until she landed her first feature film in 1932 when she played the same role she had lived the year before. The following year she was in the Mae West film I’m No Angel and, yet again, she played a maid. 

“For me, Hattie McDaniel represents the consummate working actor. She didn’t allow the negativity associated with her role as a domestic take away from her gifting as an artist. She did her work with dignity and humility. Her willingness to play roles that were deemed stereotypes with truth and integrity is what paved the way for actors who would stand on her shoulders and led to opportunities to be seen  as multifaceted layered human beings,” award-winning actress and singer Roz White told the AFRO.

Hattie McDaniel, shown holding the statuette she received for her portrayal in “Gone With the Wind,” making her the first Black woman to win an Academy Award. (AFRO Archive)

McDaniel went on to join Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1934 and play in 10 feature films before the 1939 classic that won McDaniel her Academy Award.

Gone With the Wind was a major film with a lot of conversation surrounding it. The NAACP fought to get the racial undertones out of the film and, despite complaints of some thinking it was a degrading character, Mammy was a highly sought out part, where even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied to have her personal maid play the, what became an iconic role.  However McDaniel went on to earn the coveted role and the rest is history. 

McDaniel playing the major in the huge film, starring Scarlett O’Hara, caught the attention of a lot of White Hollywood and the world.  The Academy and David Selznick, who produced Gone With the Wind, fought to have McDaniel at the awards ceremony despite the rules of the all-White “Coconut Grove,” club in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

“She was seated with her Black escort, and David (Selznick) made sure she was properly seated. And he wasn’t satisfied at first as to where she was seated,” said Gone With the Wind co-star and Academy Award category co-nominee Olivia de Havilland. “He rearranged things so it was more appropriate, from his point of view,” she added, according to a July 2020 Vanity Fair article a few days after de Havlliand’s passing.

Hollywood made a big statement when McDaniel received her Oscar.

“I’m really especially happy that I’m chosen to present this particular plaque.  To me it seems a little more than just a plaque of gold. It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America, an America that we love, an America that all of us in the world today recognizes and pays tribute to those who’ve given their best regardless of creed, race or color.  It is with a knowledge that this entire nation will stand and salute the presentation of this plaque, that I present the Academy Award for the Best Performance of an Actress in Supporting Role for 1939 to Hattie McDaniel,” said the presenter at the 1940 Academy Awards ceremony.

“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests- this is one of the happiest moments of my life and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of the Awards.  For your kindness it has made me feel very, very humble and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future,” McDaniel said, accepting her award.

The barrier breaker realized the weight of the moment.  

“I sincerely hope that I shall be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry,” McDaniel added. “My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel and may I say thank you and God bless you,” she said walking off the stage wiping tears of joy.

McDaniel’s fame came with harsh criticism, particularly from Black leaders who felt her work was degrading.  However, McDaniel continued working as an actress and even was on the Hollywood Victory Committee, serving as chairman of the Negro Division, and providing entertainment for soldiers during World War II.

In addition to her passion for entertaining, McDaniel had a love life too, having married four times- with her first two husbands dying and the other two marriages ending in divorce.  Her last divorce was in 1950, and later that year she suffered a mini-stroke.  

McDaniel died in 1952 from breast cancer.

Like much of her life, though she was well respected, she was discriminated against.  In her last will and testament, she asked to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery and for her Oscar to be kept at Howard University.  However, Hollywood Cemetery did not allow McDaniel to be buried there due to her race and due to tax issues after death, a court ordered her items sold to pay off her debt, which included the Oscar. 

Nonetheless, one of her last desires were met when Howard got the Academy Award, holding onto the trailblazer’s legacy and history, while honoring her final wish.