Hattie McDaniel as Mammy with Vivian Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.
Eighty years ago tonight Hattie McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Performance by a Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in the blockbuster hit Gone With the Wind. She was the first Black performer to be so honored—and the only one until Sidney Poitier took home an Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963 if you don’t count the “Special Academy Award” to James Baskett for his characterization of Uncle Remus in Song of the South in 1948. But on the night of her triumph McDaniel and her escort to the awards ceremony were required to sit at a segregated table on at far wall of the room with her white agent, William Meiklejohn. The swanky Coconut Grove Room of the Ambassador Hotel had a strict no-Blacks policy, but allowed McDaniel in as a favor to the Academy.
In America circa 1940 no Black person was allowed to soar too high without a slap of racism to make sure that they did not get too uppity and knew their place.
McDaniel also found herself under attack from two wings. Many white Southerners we outraged that beloved hymn to ante-bellum Dixie and the Lost Cause of the Confederacy was dishonored by the award to a Black woman. Surely, they insisted, the prize should have gone to sweet Olivia de Havilland as Melanie. They also complained that Mammy was way too familiar with and downright disrespectful to Vivian Leigh’s Scarlet O’Hara.
On the other hand many Black leaders, although glad to see some recognition, were offended by the subservience and stereotypical portrayal not only of the Mammy character, but of most of the roles McDaniel played, a parade of domestics—maids, cooks, and mammies. Her career, it was said, “ran the gamut from maid to maid.”
These two attitudes would haunt her entire long career in Hollywood which included over 300 films with credited parts in 83.
McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895 youngest of 13 children of former slaves. But she did not have the experience of most Southern Blacks during the Jim Crow Era. Her father, Henry McDaniel was a veteran of the 122nd United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. To escape the long shadow of slavery and white supremacy in the South he moved his family to Kansas which was seen as a haven for Blacks after the war. Hattie was born in Wichita. Her mother Susan Holbert, was a gospel singer who encouraged her children to become musicians and performers. McDaniel would later say that she understood Mammy in Gone With the Wind “because my own grandmother worked on a plantation not unlike Tara.”
The family relocated to Fort Collins, Colorado in 1900 and then to Denver where Hattie attended East High School giving her a better education than most young black women of her time. But before she could graduate she began touring in her brother Otis’ minstrel troupe which played a Western circuit. Young Hattie sang and wrote some of her own songs as well as performing in the second act and acting in skits in the third. After Otis died in 1916 the troupe fell on hard times as vaudeville was on the rise and replacing minstrel shows as America’s favorite theatrical entertainment and disbanded.
Hattie McDaniel as a young actress and singer.
From 1920 to ‘25, McDaniel appeared with Professor George Morrison’s Melody Hounds, a black touring ensemble and began a pioneering radio career with the group on Denver station KOA in the mid-1920s where she became the first Black woman to sing on radio in America. From 1926 to From 1926 to ‘29, she recorded many of her songs for Okeh Records, Paramount Records, and the tiny Kansas City Meritt label.
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression put an end to her recording career. Desperate to find work, McDaniel had to take a job as a washroom attendant and waitress at Club Madrid in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eventually she convinced the reluctant club owner let her sing. She became so popular he made her a regular in his floor shows.
In 1931 she moved to Los Angeles to be near to her brother Sam and two sisters who had toe-holds in the entertainment industry. She was able to join Sam in the cast of The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour on radio station KNX where she developed the role of High Hat Hattie, a saucy and sassy maid. But her radio salary was so low that she had to work as a maid in real life.
She began working as an extra, walk on, and in an occasional uncredited bit part in the movies and sometimes sang in black chorus numbers. Her first significant but uncredited roll was, of course, as a maid in Golden West in 1932 and she attracted attention in the Mae West film I’m No Angel the next year. Her big break came 1934 with Will Rogers in the John Ford directed Judge Priest in which she got co-staring billing and sang a duet with Rogers. That year she joined the Screen Actors Guild.
McDaniel as Mom Beck with Evelyn Venable and Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel--a darkie nostalgic for slave times.
In 1935 McDaniel co-starred with Shirley Temple, Lionel Barrymore, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in The Little Colonel as Mom Beck, the post-Civil War housekeeper who waxes nostalgic for the old plantation life. Despite the popularity of the film, the performance was the first to draw significant criticism from civil rights leaders especially Walter White of the National Association for Colored People (NAACP).
The following year she appeared in Show Boat with Irene Dunn, Helen Morgan, Alan Jones, and Paul Robeson as Queeny, the ship’s cook, deckhand Joe’s exasperated mate, and Magnolia’s childhood mammy. She got a rare opportunity to sing with Dunn on a verse of a verse of Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and in a duet with Robinson, I Still Suits Me.
As Queeny in Show Boat with Paul Robeson, Irene Dunn, and Helen Morgan.
1936 was a busy year. McDaniel appeared in 13 films, half of them still uncredited. She could work so steadily because maids and domestics were featured in films across genres—westerns, period pieces, both low and high comedies, mysteries, and women’s movie weepies.
Some of her notable rolls were in China Seas in which she first appeared with Clark Gable who became a life-long close friend and Jean Harlow; Alice Adams with Katherine Hepburn and Fred McMurray is McDaniel as a slovenly and inept maid; Saratoga again with Gable and Harlow in her last film role; Stella Dallas with Barbara Stanwyck; and The Mad Miss Manton with Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.
With Jean Harlow in China Seas.
Despite her many credits, McDaniel was not David O. Selznick’s first choice as Mammy. Every Black actress of a certain age in Hollywood wanted the part and First Lady Eleanora Roosevelt lobbied the producer to give the part to her personal maid, Elizabeth McDuffie. Gable heartily recommended McDaniel but it took an audition in which she showed up in a period costume with the kerchief on her head that she finally won the part.
Hoopla over Gone With the Wind had been at a fever pitch ever since Selznick announced the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s beloved best-selling novel. The premier was scheduled for December 15, 1939 at Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia. MGM which released Selznick’s independent production barred the producer from allowing McDaniel to attend because of Georgia’s strict segregation laws. An irate Gable threatened to boycott the premier himself unless she was allowed to walk the red carpet. Fearing a possible riot McDaniel urged him to let it slide and go to Atlanta. More than 300,000 reportedly mobbed the streets around the theater. She was able to attend a star studded Hollywood premier on December 28.
Receiving her Oscar for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind in 1940.
When the Academy Award nominations came out, McDaniel found herself in completion with her co-star Olivia de Havilland, Geraldine Fitzgerald in Wuthering Heights, Edna May Oliver in Drums Across the Mohawk, and Maria Ouspenskaya in Love Affair. Popular de Havilland was the heavy favorite. But it was McDaniel’s night. Gossip columnist Louella Parsons described the event.
Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar by her fine performance of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen’s taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor.
“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: 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.”
Despite the Oscar win, McDaniel’s career was somewhat slowed up during World War II during which she devoted time to serve as chairman of the Negro Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee, providing entertainment for segregated Black troops. She made numerous personal appearances at military hospitals, threw parties, and performed with USO shows and war bond rallies. Bette Davis was the only white member of McDaniel's acting troupe to perform for black regiments alongside Lena Horne and Ethel Waters. McDaniel was also a member of American Women’s Voluntary Services.
Her war-time roles included George Washington Slept Here with Jack Benny; Since You Went Away with Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, and a teenage Shirley Temple; and Janie and its sequel Janie Gets Married.
McDaniel’s deteriorating health slowed her down further in the post war years. Among her films were Margie with Jeanne Crain; Never Say Goodbye, a comedy with Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker; Walt Disney’s Song of the South with James Baskett; and the coming of age comedy/drama Mickey which was one of several films in which she played a wise domestic in a family with a teenage daughter. Her final film 1n 1949 was the auto racing drama The Big Wheel with a grown up Mickey Rooney.
Also during the post-war years McDaniel, who usually eschewed activism and politics, became involved in a celebrated open housing court battle. She was the most famous of the Black homeowners who organized the black West Adams neighborhood in Los Angeles. Loren Miller, an attorney and the owner and publisher of the California Eagle, the major Black-owned newspaper on the West Coast, represented the minority homeowners in their suit against a restrictive covenant. Wealthy Blacks began moving into the area of older mansions fashionable before the rise of Beverly Hills in 1938 and included entertainers like McDaniel, Louise Beaver, and Ethel Waters. California Superior Judge Thurmond Clarke overturned a 1902 restricted covenant in 1949 ruling that, “It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations or evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th Amendment to the Federal Constitution. Judges have been avoiding the real issue too long.”
McDaniel on CBS Radio as star of The Beulah Show.
In 1947 McDaniel became the first Black woman to star in a radio series when she took over the role of Beulah—yet another maid—from white male actors who had played the part since 1939 in various shows on two networks. The Beulah Show was a big hit for CBS Radio and the star made the best money of her career—$2,000 per week. She continued in the part until 1952 when she had to retire due to illness. Ethyl Waters took The Beulah Show to ABC Television but McDaniel replaced her for six episodes in 1952. She quit the show after being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and was replace for the final season of the show by Louise Beavers.
Even before the cancer diagnosis, McDaniel’s health had been in decline. In August 1950, McDaniel suffered a heart attack and was admitted to Temple Hospital in semi-critical condition. She was released in October to recuperate at home but suffered a mild stroke and on January 3, 1951.
She died of breast cancer at age 57 on October 26, 1952 in the hospital on the grounds of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills, California.
But her troubles were not over. Hollywood Cemetery, where she wanted to be buried, refused to accept her remains because of the strict segregation policy. She was buried instead at Rosedale Cemetery.
Despite her good income from radio and TV, her estate was valued at only $10,000 due to her generosity to family and friends and sizable medical bills. The IRS claimed $11,000 in back taxes and a probate court ordered all of her property, including her Oscar, sold to pay off creditors, principally the IRS. Somehow the Oscar escaped the sale and ended up at Howard University as directed in her final will. It was on display in a cabinet in the theater department for several years before disappearing into storage. The University still can’t find the award but vehemently denies rumors that angry student activists threw it into the Potomac in the 1970’s in protest to McDaniel’s “demeaning portrayals.”
McDaniel with her now missing Academy Award trophy. Note that it was a plaque with a representation of an Oscar statuette, what Supporting player winners then were given.
Despite the controversy, McDaniel received many posthumous honors including two stars for movies and radio on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame; and a U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage stamp in 2006.
McDaniel was honored with a USPS Black Heritage Series postage stamp in 2006.
In 1994, the actress and singer Karla Burns launched a one-woman show Hi-Hat-Hattie about McDaniel’s life and toured with it to several other cities through 2002.
In 2002, McDaniel's legacy was celebrated in the American Movie Classic’s (AMC) film Beyond Tara, The Extraordinary Life of Hattie produced and directed by Madison D. Lacy and hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. The film won the 2001–2002 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Class Special.
Producers Alysia Allen and Aaron Magnani reportedly have a theatrical bio-pic in the works based on Jill Watts’ 2005 book, Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood. No star is yet attached to the project which was first announced in 2018.
In 2004 Rita Dove, the first Black U.S. Poet Laureate, published her poem Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove in The New Yorker.
Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove
late, in aqua and ermine, gardenias
scaling her left sleeve in a spasm of scent,
her gloves white, her smile chastened, purse giddy
with stars and rhinestones clipped to her brilliantined hair,
on her free arm that fine Negro,
Mr. Wonderful Smith.
It’s the day that isn’t, February 29th,
at the end of the shortest month of the year—
and the shittiest, too, everywhere
except Hollywood, California,
where the maid can wear mink and still be a maid,
bobbing her bandaged head and cursing
the white folks under her breath as she smiles
and shoos their silly daughters
in from the night dew … what can she be
thinking of, striding into the ballroom
where no black face has ever showed itself
except above a serving tray?
Hi-Hat Hattie, Mama Mac, Her Haughtiness,
the “little lady” from Showboat whose name
Bing forgot, Beulah & Bertha & Malena
& Carrie & Violet & Cynthia & Fidelia,
one half of the Dark Barrymores—
dear Mammy we can’t help but hug you crawl into
your generous lap tease you
with arch innuendo so we can feel that
much more wicked and youthful
and sleek but oh what
we forgot: the four husbands, the phantom
pregnancy, your famous parties, your celebrated
ice box cake. Your giggle above the red petticoat’s rustle,
black girl and white girl walking hand in hand
down the railroad tracks
in Kansas City, six years old.
The man who advised you, now
that you were famous, to “begin eliminating”
your more “common” acquaintances
and your reply (catching him square
in the eye): “That’s a good idea.
I’ll start right now by eliminating you.”
Is she or isn’t she? Three million dishes,
a truckload of aprons and headrags later, and here
you are: poised, between husbands
and factions, no corset wide enough
to hold you in, your huge face a dark moon split
by that spontaneous smile—your trademark,
your curse. No matter, Hattie: It’s a long, beautiful walk
into that flower-smothered standing ovation,
so go on
and make them wait.
— Rita Dove