Hattie McDaniel broke the color barrier by being the first African American guest at the Academy Awards and the first black performer to win an acting Oscar — supporting actress for "Gone With the Wind" (1939) — but at the ceremony, she and her escort were still seated in the back of the room near the kitchen.
In accepting her statue, the actress and comedian was aware of the historical importance of the moment and did not attempt to be funny. She opened her speech with a very warm "thank you," saying she felt "very, very humble." Before closing with "My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel," she said she hoped she "would always be a credit to my race and to the motion-picture industry."
McDaniel's portrayal of stereotypical black roles earned her the criticism of Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP. A performer from age 15, the first black woman to sing on radio and among the first to appear regularly on television, McDaniel was proud of the advances she had made in her career and deeply resented White's accusations.
She was inducted posthumously in 1975 into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and in 2006 became the first black Oscar winner to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp.
Hattie McDaniel was born June 10, 1895, in Wichita, Kan., to former slaves and Civil War soldier Henry McDaniel and Susan Holbert, from whom she inherited her singing voice. She was one of 13 children of the Baptist minister who took his family to Denver. McDaniel grew up and attended grade and high school there.
In a 1940 profile, McDaniel said, “When I was 8 years old, I knew what I was going to be – an actress.” She got the acting fever when she won a Women’s Christian Temperance Union medal for a recitation. She started on the stage as a singer, touring the vaudeville circuits with George Morrison’s orchestra. She switched to radio and then back to vaudeville.
In 1930, she made up her mind to go into films and went to Los Angeles. For two years she got only extra parts. She was ridiculed by her own people, who said she was foolish to hope for fame from the films.
She took domestic and other odd jobs while waiting for fortune to smile. Finally, she won a bit part in a Ruth Chatterton picture. That was the turning point in her film career. She got a part with Will Rogers in “Judge Priest.” Next came a part with Shirley Temple in “The Little Colonel,” and McDaniel was established. She virtually was without competition for the “Gone With the Wind” role.
“I read that book three times through,” McDaniel said in 1940, looking back on her audition. “Not for weeks have I been Hattie McDaniel…. I just been going through the house all the time, peeping and peering like Mammy does after Miss Scarlett.” They tested her with Vivien Leigh, and when producer David O. Selznick saw the test, he said, “Save your overhead, boys. We can start shooting tomorrow.”
In 1951, McDaniel was forced to quit her role as Beulah on radio and television when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. She lived her final days at the Motion Picture Country Home in the San Fernando Valley and died at age 57 on Oct. 26, 1952. Thousands attended her funeral, with 125 limousines in the procession. She is buried at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery.
|1939||Best Supporting Actress||Gone With the Wind||Win|