Happy Women’s History Month! This is the 14th blog of a series of blogs called “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known American women who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).
The focus of today’s blog is Hattie McDaniel, the first Black actor to receive an Oscar.
This is her story.
Starting a Career Working with Family
According to oprahmag.com, Hattie McDaniel was born in 1895 in Wichita, Kansas. Growing up in Colorado, McDaniel knew she wanted to be an actress by age 6. At 15, she decided to pursue her dream career and drop out of high school. She traveled with her brother and his carnival for some time before collaborating with her sister to create a minstrel show called the McDaniel Sisters Company.
Big Break in Hollywood
Eventually, she became the lead singer of the traveling jazz orchestra called the Melody Hounds. Singing not only grew her popularity but also brought her to Hollywood in the 1930s. She landed her first film role in 1932, which was uncredited. Over the next few years beginning with 1934, McDaniel starred in Judge Priest next to Will Rogers, The Little Colonel next to Shirley Temple, and China Seas next to Clark Gable.
Gone With The Wind
It wasn’t until 1939 that McDaniel landed the role that she is most known for: Mammy in Gone With The Wind. For this role, she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, becoming the first Black person to win an Academy Award. At the nightclub where the ceremony was held, Black people were not allowed to enter the building, so the producer for Gone With The Wind made a special request. McDaniel was allowed in, but she had to sit very far removed away from everyone else.
Rejected by the NAACP
Black organizations like the NAACP rejected McDaniel and her roles, as they believed the roles embodied unfair and harmful stereotypes of Black people. The NAACP’s efforts to end typecasted roles of these stereotypes led to fewer opportunities for McDaniel as an actress. After she won the Oscar, she went on to star in her own radio show called Beulah, making her the first Black person to do so.
From that point on, McDaniel tried to help up-and-coming Black creatives with dreams of Hollywood. In the 40s, she served as chairman of the Negro Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee for four years. She also organized and donated entertainment for Black World War II troops. Over the years, McDaniel married four times but never had children. She passed away from breast cancer in 1957 at age 57. Read more about Hattie McDaniel here.
Source: Oprah Magazine
Read another post from the blog series “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know” here.