Hattie McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895, to a family of entertainers in Wichita, Kansas. She was her parents’ 13th child. Her father, Henry, was a Baptist minister who played the banjo and performed in minstrel shows. Her mother, Susan Holbert, was a gospel singer. In 1901, McDaniel and her family moved to Denver, Colorado.
McDaniel attended the 24th Street Elementary School in Denver, where she was one of only two black students in her class. Her natural flair for singing—in church, at school and in her home—was apparent early on, and gained her popularity among her classmates. Following her elementary schooling, McDaniel attended Denver East High School for two years.
Singing and Dancing
While still in high school, McDaniel started professionally singing, dancing and performing funny skits in minstrel shows. In 1910, she decided to leave school in order to train with her father’s minstrel troupe full time. In 1920, she became a member of Professor George Morrison’s orchestra, and toured with his and other vaudeville troops for the next five years. In 1925, she was invited to perform on Denver’s KOA radio station. The performance gave McDaniel the illustrious distinction of being the first African-American woman to sing on the radio in the United States.
Following her radio performance, McDaniel continued to work the vaudeville circuit for the next few years. When work was slow, she took a job as a restroom attendant to supplement her income. Much to her relief, in 1929, McDaniel landed a steady gig as a vocalist at Sam Pick’s Club in Milwaukee.
A year or so later, McDaniel’s brother, Sam, and sister, Etta, convinced her to move to Los Angeles, where they had managed to procure minor movie roles for themselves. Sam was also a regular on a KNX radio show, called The Optimistic Do-Nuts. Not long after arriving in L.A., McDaniel had a chance to appear on her brother’s radio show. She was a quick hit with listeners, and was dubbed “Hi-Hat Hattie” for donning formal wear during her first KNX radio performance.
In 1931 McDaniel scored her first small film role as an extra in a Hollywood musical. In 193, she won a larger role as a housekeeper in The Golden West. McDaniel continued to land bit parts here and there, but, as roles for blacks were hard to come by at the time, she was once again forced to take odd jobs to make ends meet.
McDaniel landed her first major on-screen break in 1934, singing a duet with Will Rogers in John Ford’s Judge Priest. The following year, McDaniel was awarded the role of Mom Beck, starring opposite Shirley Temple and Lionel Barrymore in The Little Colonel. The part gained McDaniel the attention of Hollywood directors, and was followed by a steady stream of offers.
In 1939, McDaniel accepted a role that would mark the highlight of her entertainment career. As Mammy, Scarlett O'Hara’s house servant in Gone with the Wind, McDaniel earned the 1940 Academy Award for best supporting actress—becoming the first African American to win an Oscar. All of the film’s black actors, including McDaniel, were barred from attending the film’s premiere in 1939, aired at the Loew’s Grand Theatre on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia.
Later, during World War II, McDaniel helped entertain American troops and promoted the sale of war bonds.
Through the mid-1940s, McDaniel appeared in additional films, primarily playing roles that members of the post-war progressive black community were beginning to cite as offensively old-fashioned. Since playing Mom Beck in The Little Colonel, McDaniel had been attacked by the media for taking parts that perpetuated a negative stereotype of blacks; she was criticized for playing servants and slaves who were seemingly content to retain their role as such.
Walter White, then president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, pleaded with African-American actors to stop accepting such stereotypical roles, as he believed they degraded the black community. He also urged movie studios to start creating roles that portrayed blacks as capable of achieving far more than cooking and cleaning for white people.
In her defense, McDaniel responded by asserting her prerogative to accept whatever roles she chose. She also suggested that characters like Mammy proved themselves as more than just measuring up to their employers.
Later Life and Death
As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, the sort of roles for which McDaniel was typecast began to gradually disappear. As a result of her conflict with the NAACP, she was also no longer a popular choice for film roles. Movie offers eventually stopped coming altogether.
McDaniel reacted to the decline in her acting career by making a strategic return to radio in the late 1940s. In 1947, she took the starring role on CBS radio’s The Beulah Show. Although McDaniel was once again playing a maid, she managed—to the NAACP’s approval—to use her talents to break racial stereotypes rather than reinforce them.
In 1951, McDaniel started filming for a television version of The Beulah Show. Unexpectedly, she suffered a heart attack around the same time, but was able to resume filming after a short recovery period. When McDaniel was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1952, actress Louise Beavers stepped in to assume her role on the TV show.
Hattie McDaniel lost her battle with cancer in Los Angeles, California, on October 26, 1952. Since her death, McDaniel has been posthumously awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Additionally, in 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.