Acting great Hattie McDaniel passed away from breast cancer in California on this day in 1952.
She was often recognized by an industry that shunned her race. But she remained dignified in the face of the racism and other adversities while acting in over 300 film – many of those films did not properly credit her. Segregation plagued the nation during theight of her career But that did not stop her from becoming the first African-American to win the coveted Academy Award.
Born the youngest of 13 children to former slaves in 1895, the Kansas-born McDaniel and her family would uproot in 1900 and moved to Colorado then eventually taking root in the city of Denver. She took cues from her actor brother, Sam, and joined his minstrel troupe along with her sister, Etta. Becoming an effective singer and songwriter, McDaniel would eventually find her way on Denver’s KOA radio station alongside a touring Black music ensemble, the Melody Hounds. Even with her growing fame, McDaniel and her compatriots found it difficult to catch a break in entertainment given the racist policies in place at the time.
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After an ambitious move to Los Angeles to land prominent film roles, McDaniel would join her brother, Sam, and her sisters, Etta and Orlena who all made their way west to find work. When film work was scarce, odd jobs were the only thing available. In 1934, however, McDaniel joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and began securing roles – typically typecast as a bossy, sassy maid. She befriended Hollywood stars of the time and eventually wowed audiences with her singing voice and other talents. Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple and Ronald Reagan all became close associates and friends of Hattie McDaniel during her tenure out west
Despite criticism from Blacks who felt her roles were beneath her talent and misrepresented the race, Hattie McDaniel would go on to make her biggest splash in the 1939 film, Gone With The Wind. Playing the role of “Mammy” alongside Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, McDaniel would win an Oscar at the 1940 Academy Awards ceremony amongst her peers in Los Angeles. Although her acceptance speech was gracious and well-received, McDaniel’s victory was bittersweet considering she and her guest had to sit at a segregated table in the venue.
McDaniel continued to find success as an actress and went on to become the first African American to star in a radio show with the program, Beulah. Although the show was a hit, McDaniel discovered she had breast cancer and was too ill to continue the program. She eventually died on this day at the age 57.
Her legacy lives on in a variety of monuments and tributes.
McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame for both her contributions to radio and film. She was also honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 2006. The pioneering actress has also been the subject of plays and documentaries marking her amazing career arc and the trials she faced as she rose to prominence. It is tough to imagine the hell Hattie McDaniel had to face to find her footing in a world that largely rejected her, but her will to succeed and ability to entertain won out overall.