Hattie McDaniel From the National Civil Rights Museum’s Twitter

This Day in History: June 10th


The First African-American To Win An Oscar Was Born

Oscar award-winning actress, Hattie McDaniel was born on June 10, 1893, in Wichita, Kansas. McDaniel was a singer and actress and she is the first African-American to win an Oscar, which she received for her role in Gone With The Wind. 

McDaniel was the 13th child in the family. Her father was a Civil War veteran who suffered from war injuries and her mother was a domestic worker. The McDaniels moved to Denver, CO, where she was one of the only black students in her class. Her singing talents were apparent and this gained her popularity with her classmates.

While in high school she began singing and performing in skits as part of The Mighty Minstrels. She dropped out of school in 1909 to focus on her developing career and joined her older brother’s troupe.

During the Great Depression, McDaniel spent years cleaning bathrooms at a Milwaukee club to support herself. The club, which only allowed white performers, eventually made an exception allowing McDaniel to sing after patrons learned of her talent and pressured the owner. After a year of performing, McDaniel would move to Los Angeles where she did a small role on the radio before beginning what would be a historic career in Hollywood.

In 1932, she made her film debut playing a Southern house servant in “The Golden West.” But her big break would come two years later in “Judge Priest,” where she sang a duet with Will Rogers in her first major role.

Convinced by her siblings, McDaniel decided to relocate to Los Angeles where they were able to land minor roles in movies. While in L.A. she was given a chance to appear on a radio show called “The Optimistic Do-Nuts” and she became a fan favorite. She was even called “Hi Hat Hattie” for her formal attire during the performance.

During the early 1930s, she was able to secure small roles in films such as The Golden West and Hollywood musicals. In 1934, McDaniel made a major on-screen appearance singing a duet in Judge Priest. The following year she was awarded the role of Mom Beck in The Little Colonel. In 1939, she played the role of Mammy, the house servant in Gone With the Wind, and her performance would become a highlight of her career. 

She earned the 1940 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and became the first African-American to win an Oscar. Blacks were not allowed in the main hall of the that although all of the film’s black actors were barred from attending the film’s premiere. Following her success from Gone With the Wind, McDaniel made her return to radio on CBS’s The Beulah Show in 1947. McDaniel’s role choices did cause her to receive some criticism from members in the black community. She often responded by asserting that she could accept whatever roles she wants and that characters like Mammy were able to measure up to their employers.

“I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than working as one,” she is quoted as saying. 

Hattie McDaniel died of cancer in Los Angeles, California, on October 26, 1952. Hollywood Cemetery denied her final wish to be buried there. But McDaniel did receive two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame posthumously and was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975.  

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