Hattie McDaniel (233577)
Credit: Contributed

Hattie McDaniel was the Jackie Robinson of filmdom as the first African-American actor/actress to win an Oscar. She won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in “Gone with the Wind” (1939). The award was the culmination of a screen career in which McDaniel was perennially cast as a maid and often uncredited.

“Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid?” she is reported to have said about her roles in films and on radio. “If I didn’t, I’d make $7 a week being one.”

Born June 10, 1893, according to Jill Watts, one of her biographers, in Wichita, Kan., McDaniel was one of seven children to survive of the 13 her parents, former slaves, had. Her father, Henry, fought in the Civil War, and her mother was a vocalist, most often of religious music.

In 1900, the family moved to Colorado, first to Fort Collins and later to Denver, where Hattie was a graduate of Denver East High School. Among her first appearances onstage was a performer in her brother’s minstrel show. But it wasn’t until she was 27 that she really began to get noticed, and by 1925 she was a featured performer in Professor George Morrison’s Melody Hounds, a touring ensemble.

Around this period, she began appearing on radio, and she is reputed to be the first African-American to sing on radio with the Melody Hounds on KOA in Denver. From 1926 to 1929, she was a recording artist for the pioneering Okeh Records and Paramount Records in Chicago.

But like so many Americans, McDaniel was a casualty of the Great Depression. She was able to subsist as a washroom attendant and a waitress at the Club Madrid in Milwaukee. It was at the club, despite the reluctance of the owner to allow her to perform, that she was finally able to become a regular performer. By 1931, she was living in Los Angeles, where she joined her brother, Sam, and her sisters, Etta and Orlena, all performers.

While she waited for film opportunities, she worked as a maid and a cook. Sam, employed at KNX on “The Optimistic Do-Nut Show,” got her a spot on the show. Her role as Hi-Hat Hattie, a maid who refused to “stay in her place,” made her very popular but, even so, it did not pay enough to keep her from continuing to work as a maid.

In 1932, she got her first film part in “The Golden West,” as expected playing a maid. Her performance was so commanding that she earned a role in “I’m No Angel,” starring Mae West. Along with this minor breakthrough, she acquired additional roles in uncredited parts, as well as singing in choruses.

Two years later, McDaniel became a member of the Screen Actors Guild and subsequently her roles were credited. She got good notices from her role in “The Little Colonel,” featuring Shirley Temple, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Lionel Barrymore. Her first major role came with Will Rogers in John Ford’s “Judge Priest” (1934). Most memorable is the duet she performed with Rogers, which began lifelong friendship.

Then came a succession of bit parts in such films as “Alice Adams” with Jean Harlow as the star, and “China Seas,” her first film with Clark Gable. Her vocal ability was highlighted in “Show Boat,” particularly her brief singing of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” There was also her duet with Paul Robeson on “I Still Suits Me.”

She won major roles in “Saratoga,” again with Harlow and Gable, and other top films, including “Nothing Sacred,” in which Carole Lombard and Frederic March were the stars.

All of these roles and opportunities were not wasted for an actress with great appeal, and that put her in good stead when she fought for and got the role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind.”

But her success in films did not come without rancor from the Black community, who criticized her obsequious roles and her failure to address the stereotypical casting of African-Americans in Hollywood. Although she found ways to give her roles a relative amount of spunk and sassiness, it did little to tamp down the charges that she was a willing dupe and an “Aunt Jemima.”

Undeterred by the criticism, McDaniel aggressively pursued the role in “Gone with the Wind,” and, dressed as a maid, won out over several others competing for the part.

When the film was slated to premiere in Atlanta, there was a wave of controversy, both from the studio and from the community about McDaniel’s appearance, given the Jim Crow laws. McDaniel did not appear, but she did attend the film’s Hollywood debut Dec. 28, 1939. Eventually, she won the Oscar for playing a maid who was just as sassy as “Hi-Hat Hattie.”

Her acceptance speech Feb. 29, 1940, at the awards ceremony is considered one of the best ever delivered. She thanked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and her fellow members of the industry and honored guests and said, “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 their 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. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”

Even as she celebrated her remarkable achievement, she was practically alone as a Black person in the hotel, which had a no-Blacks policy. It remains a mystery as to whatever happened to the Oscar, which she had promised to donate to Howard University upon her death. The whereabouts of that Oscar remains unknown.

What is known is that after the prestige and celebrity from the Oscar, McDaniel resumed her acting career, most notable with Bette Davis in “In This Our Life,” (1942). Again she was a maid with a fresh agency and dignity. She was also a pianist and composer of some merit.

She was again with Davis and Humphrey Bogart in “Thank Your Lucky Stars.” The movie took place in Harlem and McDaniel’s comic relief and bubbling personality were praised by critics.

When her film career came to an end in 1948, she became a star on television and the first African-American to have her own show, “Beulah.” She replaced Ethel Waters in the role and began receiving $2,000 a week. Again she was met with pushback from the Black community about the show’s depiction of Black characters in less than redeeming roles.

After filming several episodes of the television show, she learned she had breast cancer. By the spring, McDaniel was too ill to continue and was replaced by Louise Beavers.

McDaniel was married four times and had no children. She died of breast cancer Oct. 26, 1952, in California. She was 57. Among her many accomplishments are the two plaques in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for contributions in film and the other for radio. In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers’ Hall of Fame. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor Jan. 25, 2006.