The Robinson Library
The Robinson Library >> Dramatic Arts >> Biography: United States
Hattie McDaniel

the first black to win an Academy Award

Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel was born in Wichita, Kansas, on June 10, 1895, the youngest of 13 children. When she was 15, the family moved to Denver, Colorado.

At age 17, Hattie sang her first song over the radio. At 18, she won a gold medal from the Women's Christian Temperance Union for reciting "Convict Joe." After that, she began traveling in the South, playing for the Shrine and Elks circuits. When she wasn't acting, she would often take a job in a kitchen or laundry to make ends meet.

In 1931, McDaniel went to Los Angeles, California, where she got a job on a variety show on radio station KNS. Thinking that the cast would wear formal dress, Hattie showed up in the studio for her first appearance wearing an evening gown; everyone else was wearing street clothes. Tom Breneman, the show's announcer, commented: "Well, look at our High Hat Hattie!" The nickname stuck, and she would later star in a radio show titled Hi-Hat Hattie. She also played on the Amos and Andy and Eddie Cantor radio shows. Between 1947 and 1951, she played the title character in the radio show Beulah; she played the same part on television, in 1950.

McDaniel made her movie debut in 1932, playing a maid in The Golden West. Her maid-mammy characters became more and more assertive, beginning with Judge Priest (1934) and Alice Adams (1935), until The Mad Miss Marton (1938), in which she actually tells off her socialite employer, played by Barbara Stanwyck. Her most famous maid-mammy role was in Gone with the Wind (1939), in which she was, in a number of ways, superior to most of the white folk around her. McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, making her the first black to win an Academy Award. She was also the first black to attend the Academy Awards ceremony as a guest, not a servant.

Although McDaniel's maid-mammy characters made her famous, they also made her subject to harsh criticism. Activists called her portrayals "demeaning," and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched a letter-writing campaign that made studios uneasy. Declaring that her "worst enemies were (her) own people," McDaniel snapped back that "I'd rather play a maid than be one." In another notable quote, McDaniel said "Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one." Unfortunately, the criticism and letter-writing campaigns made it increasingly difficult for McDaniel to get good roles. Although she would appear in more than 300 films throughout her career, none of her other roles would approach the quality of Gone with the Wind.

McDaniel died of breast cancer on October 26, 1952. The first African-American to be buried in Los Angeles' Rosedale Cemetery, her funeral was attended by some 3,000 persons, black and white.

The human "Mammy" character in the Tom and Jerry cartoons was based on Hattie McDaniel.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Dramatic Arts >> Biography: United States

This page was last updated on 06/09/2018.