Henry and Susan McDaniel, Hattie’s parents, were both born into slavery in the early to mid-1800’s.
On Thursday, February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first black performer to win an Academy Award for her role as Mammy in the epic MGM film Gone with the Wind (1939).
To control the narrative of the 19th century black minstrel shows, Hattie and her sister Etta, developed their own all-female show in 1914, The McDaniel Sisters Company, that challenged stereotypes and criticized racism, making them the first recorded black female producers at the turn of the 20th century.
Hattie’s first major motion picture was starring opposite Shirley Temple in the movie, The Little Colonel.
Hattie could not attend the movie premiere of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta, GA because of segregation laws. Leading man Clark Gable – a good friend of Hattie’s – reportedly threatened to boycott the film premiere unless she could attend. Hattie was eventually successful in talking Gable into going.
Hattie experienced criticism from different groups. Caucasian audiences didn’t appreciate her sassy and opinionated attitude, and some sought to restrict her boldness. While many in the black community adored her, some black audiences criticized her for accepting Hollywood’s stereotypical roles and refused to support her career success.
Due to the “white’s only” rules at the Ambassador Hotel, McDaniel had to receive special permission (a special favor called in by David O. Selznick) to attend the Academy Awards where she would go on to win her Oscar. She was forced to sit at a racially segregated table at the back of the room.
She left her Oscar to Howard University to inspire young, black performers to reach for their dreams. The Oscar vanished after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the riots that ensued. Fifty-plus years later, McDaniel’s Oscar has never been found nor replaced by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences.
Hattie is credited with being the first black woman to sing on radio and possibly the first black artist to sing across the airwaves.
In 1947, Hattie took over The Beulah Show and doubled the ratings of the original series. This pleased the NAACP which was elated to see an historic first: a black woman as the star of a network program.
Hattie played a pivotal role in fighting segregated housing in Los Angeles – and won a landmark decision in the Superior Court. She organized Saturday workshops to strategize against a lawsuit denying her and other people of color the right to buy property in the affluent Sugar Hill neighborhood. She gathered 250 sympathizers who accompanied her to court. Her case set a precedent that would later help the U.S. Supreme Court rule that race-based restrictive housing covenants were unconstitutional.
Hattie starred in over 300 films but was only credited for 83 in total. Her estate is continuing to work on seeking her deserved accreditation for her contribution to many of Hollywood’s earliest works.
Hattie was the first black Oscar winner to be honored with a U.S. Postage Stamp in 2006.
She has not one, but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Hattie was Gone with the Wind’s only Academy Award winner who was not interviewed after her historic Oscar victory. To this day, not a single media interview of Hattie has been made public.