Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award Win
On February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award.
McDaniel, the youngest child of former slaves, was born in Wichita, Kansas, and raised in Denver, Colorado. She dropped out of high school to tour with vaudeville companies. When McDaniel arrived in Hollywood in 1931, she supported herself by working on radio and washing clothes.
McDaniel was in her 30s before her career really began. She had performed, written, and recorded songs before the Great Depression, but the downturn in the economy halted her singing aspirations. Her brother got her a gig on his radio show as a maid who often “forgets her place.” Her character, “Hi-Hat-Hattie,” was a hit. (McDaniel later became known for her many comedic roles as a bossy, opinionated maid.)
McDaniel soon began appearing in films – as many as 300 – including roles as extras, maids, and chorus singers. Due to the scarcity of roles for African-American actresses, McDaniel spent much of her 20-year career playing maids. She has been quoted as saying, “I’d rather play a maid than be one.”
Increased recognition and membership in the Screen Actors Guild got McDaniel into movies, though usually in “bit” parts. Her big break came in 1934 when she was cast in a lead role in John Ford’s Judge Priest, starring Will Rogers. The roles poured in from there.
By the late 1930s, Hollywood was abuzz with the film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. The competition for the part of the maid Mammy was said to be nearly as stiff as that for lead role, Scarlett O’Hara. Among the competition was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie. Though she’d come to be known as a comic actress and doubted she’d get the part, McDaniel decided to audition anyway. Some say Clark Gable recommended her for the role, which she ultimately landed.
The film premiered on December 15, 1939, at the Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta, Georgia. At the time, segregation was still in full force in the state and violence against African Americans was rampant. With this in mind, the studio asked McDaniel and other African American cast members not to attend the premiere. Her co-star Clark Gable threatened to boycott the premiere unless she was allowed to attend. But she convinced him to go anyway.
Gone with the Wind was immensely popular – it was the highest-earning film up to that time. It received 13 Academy Award nominations, winning 10 on February 29, 1940. Among those was McDaniel’s award for Best Supporting Actress. She was the first African American in history to win an Oscar. In her acceptance speech she said, “This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; 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.”