On February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel entered the annals of African American history as the first African American performer to win the prestigious Academy Award for her role as Mammy in 1939’s Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. It was an extraordinary, unprecedented achievement that continues to inspire to this day. Hattie was truly a picture of pride and emotion as she stood in the spotlight she rightfully deserved, giving a brief acceptance speech that was filled with grace, humility, and genuine joy.
However, the monumental nature of McDaniel’s Oscar win was accompanied by a harsh reality that reminded her of the times she lived in, as she was seated at a segregated table at the edge of Cocoanut Grove, a nightclub inside the Wilshire-based Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles, far removed from her fellow white actors. Even in the face of such blatant inequality, McDaniel’s held her head high and received her award with dignity. As she once famously said, “I can be a maid for $7 a week, or I can play a maid for $700 a week.” These were the words that reflected McDaniel’s approach to her work, her profound understanding of racial dynamics, and her clever manipulation of said dynamics to her benefit.
Born in 1893, Hattie McDaniel wasn’t a stranger to adversity. She was the thirteenth child of two formerly enslaved parents. Her father, Henry, bravely fought for the Union, which left him with a shattered jaw and subsequently leaving an open injury in his mouth. McDaniel, though still young, got to see firsthand the disparity in medical care based on institutionalized health inequalities, which propagated ideas of biological differences between Blacks and whites, as he was given little to no medical treatment for the injuries he sustained during the war.
McDaniel would often help her father fill out papers sent by the government, whose clerks made securing his deserved pension and disability payments a Herculean task. In one instance, a government clerk even wrote that he couldn’t increase Henry’s pension as there was no official proof that Henry — a former slave who couldn’t possibly provide a record of birth — had reached the age of 70. Still, despite the constant hardships and racial discrimination, the McDaniel children became trailblazing entertainers.
McDaniel was an exceptional songwriter and performer who honed her skills and talents while working with her brother Otis’ carnival company, a minstrel show. Minstrels were members of a band of stage entertainers in the late 19th and early 20th century who often performed comic routines based on stereotyped depictions of African Americans. But it wasn’t until 1914 that Hattie and her sister Etta started an all-female minstrel show under the banner of the McDaniel Sisters Company. It was during these performances that Hattie developed a zany Mammy character — a cultural critique of the racial stereotype that would one day make her famous.
After Otis died, the troupe slowly fell apart. McDaniel refashioned herself as a blues singer performing with Melody Hounds. This led to a somewhat successful radio career, during which she recorded many of her songs for Paramount Records and Okeh Records. She would also take jobs as a domestic worker or cook in between gigs to make ends meet. One night in 1929, all the singers in the Sam Pick-owned Club Madrid left before the venue was closed, and the management needed an act. Though reluctant, the owner allowed Hattie to perform, after which she was hired on the spot.
McDaniel remained one of Club Madrid’s leading performers for nearly two years before the club was forced to close during the Great Depression. Having nothing else to her name but $20 in her purse by the time she arrived in Hollywood, McDaniel took all sorts of jobs just to make ends meet, including cooking and domestic work. She did land a radio role. One of her more prominent roles was as Hi-Hat Hattie, a bossy maid who often “speaks and goes out of line.” This made her incredibly popular, but her salary was so low she still had to keep working as a maid.
Not soon after, her acting career started to take shape. She made her first appearance in 1933’s I’m No Angel, and by 1937, she became a go-to actor to play comedic, sassy maids, a subversion of the usual meek and servile character standard. Furthermore, she faced harsh criticism for her roles, especially from influential members of the African American community. Still, she went on to portray Mammy and subsequently won an Oscar for her role. No other African American woman won the prestigious award until Whoopi Goldberg won Best Supporting Actress for Ghost — 50 years later.
McDaniel continued portraying (mostly) domestic roles in film and radio. During an interview, which touched upon the criticism of her life’s work, she asked the reporter how can someone in their profession not know that millions of African Americans in the United States were employed in domestic roles. “Surely you don’t think the roles I portray are obsolete,” she asked. Unfortunately, Hattie McDaniel passed away in 1952 following health complications associated with diabetes and breast cancer.
Today, we remember Hattie McDaniel not just as the first African American Oscar winner but also as a symbol of determination, resilience, and adaptivity, a testament to the power of ambition against all odds in an industry marred by racism. Hattie McDaniel proved that success isn’t defined by the roles we’re given but by how we choose to play them.