Born in 1895 to former slaves, Hattie McDaniel would go to become the first African American to receive an Academy Award. But she didn’t just break boundaries in film. Through her radio show The Beaulah Show, She also became the first black woman to sing on the radio in the U.S.
McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood: one at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard for her contributions to radio and one at 1719 Vine Street for acting in motion pictures. In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and in 2006 became the first black Oscar winner honored with a US postage stamp.
She would go on to appear in over 300 films, although she received screen credits for only 80.
The youngest of 13 children, Hattie forced her way to stardom through constant struggle. Working as a washroom attendant during the Great Depression, Hattie eventually convinced the owner of the club to take the stage as a performer. He eventually added her as a regular performer. After moving to Los Angeles she secured herself a spot on a local radio station. Performing as “Hi-Hat Hattie”, a bossy maid who often “forgets her place”, Her show gained in popularity, but her salary was so low that she had to continue working as a maid.
In 1934, McDaniel joined the Screen Actors Guild. She began to attract attention and landed larger film roles, which began to win her screen credits. Fox Film Corporation put her under contract to appear in The Little Colonel (1935), with Shirley Temple, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Lionel Barrymore.
The competition to play Mammy in Gone with the Wind had been almost as stiff as that for Scarlett O’Hara. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to film producer David O. Selznick to ask that her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, be given the part. McDaniel did not think she would be chosen because she had earned her reputation as a comic actress. Suppressing her doubts, she went to her audition dressed in an authentic maid’s uniform and won the part.
This role would garner her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but more importantly, the first African American to win an Academy Award.
The video below is her acceptance speech on February 29, 1940.