We’re halfway through Black History Month, and a day closer to the 85th annual Academy Awards, airing February 24. As we wait anxiously to see if nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, will make Black history, by becoming the youngest person ever to win the Best Actress Oscar for her phenomenal portrayal of Hush Puppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, we recall the work of Hattie McDaniel, the first person of color to win the heralded Academy Award.
Born June 10, 1895 in Wichita, Kan., McDaniel’s was the youngest of thirteen children, but saw her upbringing in Fort Collins and Denver. It was there that she developed a natural flair for singing and the arts from her father, Henry, a Baptist minister who played the banjo and performed in minstrel shows, and her mother, Susan Holbert, who was a gospel singer.
By the time she was in high school, McDaniel was singing, dancing, and performing comedic skits professionally with her father’s Minstrel show troupe.
Over the next 15 years, she developed her chops singing and dancing as a member of Professor George Morrison’s orchestra, touring with his and other vaudeville troops. This allotted McDaniel the opportunity to perform on Denver’s KOA radio station in 1925, which made her one of the first Black woman to sing on radio.
McDaniel’s talents soon took her to the out West after her brother, Sam, and sister, Etta, convinced her to move to Los Angeles, where they managed to procure minor movie roles for themselves. As you can imagine, things were difficult for Blacks in Hollywood at the time, but she managed to survive by taking odd jobs in between major breaks like Judge Priest and The Little Colonel, alongside Shirley Temple.
McDaniel’s experiences culminated February 29, 1940, when she left the world dumbfounded after beating Geraldine Fitzgerald and others for best supporting actress honors for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind.
Many Black people scrutinized McDaniel for taking subservient roles like cooks and maids throughout her career, but she remained steadfast in her decisions on roles she selected, and countered with claims that characters like “Mammy” proved themselves as more than just measuring up to their employers. She was also quoted, “I could either get paid $100 a month as a real maid or $750 a week playing one in the movies!”
See a video of McDaniel accepting the Academy Award below, as well as a few more Black Oscar winners on the following pages.
Photo: Black Enterprise