Hattie McDaniel was born to Baptist preacher Henry McDaniel and Susan Holbert on June 10, 1893 in Wichita, Kan. She grew up in Denver, one of 13 children. In 1910 she won a medal for reciting a poem titled Convict Joe.The award is what inspired her to become a performer. She quit high in her sophomore year to travel with her father and two brothers’ minstrel group.
In 1925 McDaniel began singing on Denver radio station KNX. Her radio job led to the recording of several songs, which she had written herself. She had the opportunity to tour many cites, mainly booked by the Theatrical Owens Booking Association, which had Black owners.
In 1931 McDaniel made her way to Los Angeles to join her brother and two of her sisters. When she could not get film work, she took jobs as a maid or a cook.
Her brother Sam was working on a radio program called, The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour and was able to get Hattie a spot on the show. Her character, Hi-Hat Hattie, became extremely popular, but her salary was so low that she had to continue working as a maid.
Over the course of her career, McDaniel appeared in over 300 films, but was only given credit for 80 of them. Since she had experienced racism in her lifetime and had been a maid much of her 20-year career, she became famous for her two quotes: “I’d rather play a maid than be one” and “Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”
In 1934, Judge Priest, directed by John Ford and starring Will Rogers, was the first film in which she received a leading role. By the mid-1930s, Hattie had befriended several of Hollywood’s most popular White stars, including Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. But the greatest year in Hattie McDaniel’s life was in 1940. She became the first African-American to receive the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal as Mammy in the 1939 film Gone With The Wind.
McDaniel was not allowed to attend the premiere of the film because of Georgia’s segregation laws. She was allowed to attend the Academy Award ceremony, but she and her escort were seated in the back of the room at a table just for them. It seemed that despite Hattie’s greatest successes, the color of her skin mattered more to people than her acting talent.
It was around this time that she began to be criticized by members of the Black community for roles that she chose to take.
Although Gone With The Wind was intended as high drama, Blacks still functioned as comic relief. It is hard to remember today that Gone With The Wind was a battleground between those who desired a romantic view of America’s bloodiest conflict and others who feared the film would perpetrate racial ignorance and hatred. For the years afterward, McDaniel’s appearances in that particular movie embarrassed African Americans.
On Oct. 26, 1952, Hattie McDaniel died of breast cancer at the age of 57. It was her wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard among some of her fellow movie stars. However, the owner refused to allow her to be interred into the cemetery because she was Black.
Discrimination in life and death was her experience. Yet, in her own way, she was a pioneer who paved the way for many others.