Hattie McDaniel is a pioneering multi-talented African American entertainer who became the first person of African descent to win an Academy Award. She accomplished this feat with her role in ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939).
The actress, singer, songwriter, and comedian began her career on radio and was the first black woman to sing on the United States radio wave. She is among the selected number of people who have two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to radio and acting.
Early Life and Career
Hattie McDaniel was born the youngest of 13 children to her parents; Susan Holbert and Henry McDaniel on June 10, 1895, in Wichita, Kansas. Both her parents were former slaves who gained freedom and went on to start a family. Her mother was a religious music singer and domestic worker while her father joined the army and fought with the 122nd United States Colored Troops in the Civil War.
McDaniel attended and graduated from Denver East High School after the family moved to Colorado from Kansas in 1900. After high school, she began singing and acting, appearing on her brother Otis’ minstrel show before later catching her big break in 1920 when she joined a black touring ensemble called Professor George Morrison’s Melody Hounds.
Sometime in the mid-1920s, she got a job at Denver radio station KOA where she sang with the Melody Hounds as she recorded her own songs at Okeh and Paramount Records to establish herself as a blues artist.
How She Built Herself Into an Entertainment Icon
Around 1929, McDaniel was no longer able to make ends meet with her previous job which was largely due to the crashing of the stock market. She went on to find work as a waitress and cleaner at a club in Milwaukee. While performing her duties, McDaniel always tried to impress the owner of the club with her singing skills. He was at first reluctant with her performing on his stage but later gave her a chance which turned out to be one his best decisions as she wowed audiences. She immediately became a regular performer.
In 1931, Hattie McDaniel opted to take her talents to the show business capital of the world, Los Angeles, where some of her siblings already lived. She first took up jobs as a maid and cook before her brother was able to get her a spot on his radio show, ‘The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour’ where she appeared as Hi-Hat Hattie. The show grew more popular however it did not translate to a greater salary which meant she had to still continue with her odd jobs.
Breaking Into The Movie Industry
The following year, she made her first movie appearance in ‘The Golden West’ (1932) where she played a maid. Her next role was also that of a maid in ‘I’m No Angel’ (1933) after which things began to dry up as there were very limited roles for black actors.
After performing in a number of movies that she was uncredited for, she joined the Screen Actors Guild after which she began to land major parts in movies like ‘Judge Priest’ (1934), ‘Alica Adams’ (1935), ‘Vivacious Lady’ (1938), ‘The Shopworn Angel’ (1938), and particularly, ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939) which enshrined her talents among other great Hollywood stars.
Despite growing racial tensions in the country, part of which stopped her from attending the movie’s premiere in Atlanta, Hollywood held its head high and recognized her with the 1939 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her outstanding performance in the movie. The black community, however, were frustrated with Hattie McDaniel because they felt she undermined the black civil rights movement by accepting and embracing stereotypical roles. They also believed that she was given the award because she was not among those protesting the stereotype.
McDaniel continued her meteoric rise in Hollywood which was fueled more by her decision to entertain US troops during World War II. She further appeared in ‘Mickey’ (1948), ‘Family Honeymoon’ (1949), and the CBS television show ‘The Ed Wynn Show’ before choosing to return to radio where she starred in ‘The Beulah Show’ (1947).
In 1951, while filming the television version of her radio show, Hattie McDaniels suffered a heart attack. She, later on, found out that she had breast cancer which forced her to abandon her work. On October 26, 1952, she died of breast cancer and was subsequently buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. McDaniel had however initially requested in her will to be buried at the Hollywood Cemetery but because the cemetery practiced racial segregation, her family took up her second choice.
Hattie McDaniel’s Marriages
Hattie McDaniel was married four times. Her first marriage was to pianist Howard Hickman in January 1911 until his death in 1915. Her second marriage was to George Langford who died soon after they were married in January 1925 from gunshot wounds.
In 1941, McDaniel gave marriage a third go, this time to real estate salesman James Lloyd Crawford. The union lasted for four and half years before the actress filed for divorce citing jealousy over her success by her partner. The fourth time was to interior decorator Larry Williams who McDaniels divorced after just five months.