Black History

Hattie McDaniel: The Unapologetic ‘Shero’

For centuries, Black women have gone to great lengths to prove themselves worthy of the recognition that they are due. Oftentimes, Black women have provided the needed support for the success of such movements to end slavery, fight for women’s rights, denouncing lynchings and Jim Crow segregation while finding ways to provide for their families despite dealing with racism and sexism.

While these battles often took place in the political, educational and economic arenas, the entertainment field had its share of unfairness toward Black women also.

Hattie McDaniel, an actress and radio performer, took advantage of opportunities that existed during the pre-civil rights era that many Blacks would shriek at today. McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1940 for her controversial role as Mammy, the loud-mouthed, uncouth yet dignified house slave of Scarlet O’Hara in the hit movie “Gone with the Wind.”

NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White and other civil rights leaders of the time blasted McDaniel for playing domestic servants that appeased Whites without question, criticism McDaniel took in stride.

“My desire for the part of Mammy was not dominated by selfishness, for Hollywood has been good to me and I am grateful,” she said, according to brainyquote.com. “Playing the Mammy of Miss [Vivian] Leigh was just about the greatest thrill I’ve ever had.”

In a 1947 edition of The Hollywood Reporter, McDaniel dismissed her critics, saying, “I’d rather play a maid than be one.”

Born on June 10, 1893, in Wichita, Kansas, into a family of entertainers, McDaniel became one of the first Black women to perform on the radio. She landed her first role in the movies “Judge Priest” in 1934 and played in several roles after that.

In 1939, “Gone with the Wind” received a nationwide release and even though McDaniel co-starred in the film, she couldn’t go to the Atlanta premiere at the Loew’s Grand Theatre because of racial segregation.

Racism reared its ugly head again when McDaniel won the Oscar for supporting actress but couldn’t sit with the “Gone with the Wind” cast at the ceremony at Los Angeles’s Coconut Grove restaurant because of its “no Blacks” policy, though she was allowed inside.

Nevertheless, McDaniel didn’t fret about her seating arrangement and thanked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for recognizing her work.

“Fellow members of this motion picture industry and honored guests, this is one of the happiest moments of my life and I want to thank each one of who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards for your kindness that has made me feel very, very humble,” she said in her acceptance speech. “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.”

For perspective, it wasn’t until 1963 that another African American actor, Sidney Poitier, would win an Oscar, and until 1990 for another Black woman — Whoopi Goldberg — to win.

In 1947, McDaniel starred in CBS Radio’s “The Beulah Show” and a television show by the same name on ABC.

She died on Oct. 26, 1952, in Los Angeles at the age of 59.

In addition to working with stars such as Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable, she worked with Shirley Temple, Irene Dunne and Will Rogers throughout her career. When she entertained Black troops during World War II, Bette Davis joined her at one point.

After McDaniel died, she received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1975 was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. She was honored with a commemorative U.S. postage stamp in 2006.

In her final years, McDaniel willed her Oscar to Howard University. However, the trophy disappeared sometime during the 1960s and 1970s and there are many theories as to what happened to it.

Howard University didn’t respond to requests for comment regarding the missing Oscar.

Many Black actors and actresses presently would take umbrage at playing a servile character to a White person. Ken Johnson leads the acclaimed Theatre Department at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Northwest and sees McDaniel as a “shero.”

“She is a heroine by any measure,” Johnson said. “What she overcame and accomplished under the circumstances she faced was phenomenal. She lived in a different time when it was almost a crime to be Black.”

Johnson said the struggle for proper recognition for the work of Black actors and actresses continues today.

“Today, we as Blacks have much more control of our image than back then,” he said. “Nevertheless, despite the progress, it is still significant when a Black person wins an Oscar. Considering that, Hattie McDaniel was an extraordinary person.”

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