Hattie McDaniel: The First African American to win an Oscar

Hattie McDaniel was a trailblazer in the American entertainment industry. At a time when black performers were given limited opportunities in Hollywood, the Kansas-born movie star broke every barrier to establish herself as one of the most admired actresses in the United States. Her popularity and skills earned her roles in over 290 films. McDaniel’s game-changing performances paved the way for other African-American actors and actresses to succeed in the film industry.

In 1940, McDaniel etched her name in history after she won the Oscar. This made her the first African-American to record this feat. The actress went on to win other laurels which highlighted her role in the development of the film industry in the United States. She was indeed a black diamond who lit up the entertainment world with her excellent performances.

From dropping out of school at an early age and working as a washroom attendant to becoming a Hollywood superstar, this article contains all you need to know about the life and achievements of this extraordinary movie star.

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Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel (1893-1952) is best known for her stunning performance as Mammy in the critically acclaimed historical romance film “Gone with the Wind”. For that performance, the Kansas-born actress bagged an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Thus she became the first African American to win an Academy Award.

Childhood and education

Hattie was one of the children of Civil War veteran Henry McDaniel and his partner Susan Holbert, who was a gospel musician. Both her parents were former slaves. She was born in Wichita, Kansas and was raised alongside 12 other siblings including future actors Sam McDaniel and Etta McDaniel.

Spending most of her time with her mother, Hattie developed a love for singing when she was very young. At the age of 15 years, she participated in a musical contest which was sponsored by the international group known as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. After the competition, she was convinced that she had won, though the first prize was given to someone else.

When she and her family moved to Colorado, McDaniel was enrolled at Denver East High School in 1908. She was one of the very few black children in the white-dominated school which might be the reason why she dropped out in 1910. However, she continued to chase her dreams in the entertainment industry.

Hattie's McDaniel's relatives

Hattie’s siblings Sam McDaniel (1886-1962) and Etta McDaniel (1890-1946) were also actors. Etta, for example, appeared in over 50 films in the 1930s and 1940s, including in “King Kong” (1933), “Life with Henry” (1941), and “Son of Dracula” (1943).

How her career started

McDaniel began her career in the entertainment industry as a singer. She started performing in front of large crowds when she was in high school. After leaving school, she joined a carnival company owned by one of her brothers, Otis McDaniel. In 1914, she collaborated with Etta Goff, her sister, to form the McDaniel Sisters Company, a musical group.

With her sister, Hattie toured the United States on many occasions. When Otis died in 1916, things became difficult for the sisters. This led Hattie to join the Melody Hounds which was founded by Professor George Morrison. She started her radio career in the 1920s, and became one of the first black singers to perform on a radio in America.

With support from labels like Paramount Records and Okeh Records, the multi-talented performer recorded many songs. Among her most popular projects were “I Thought I’d Do It” and “Just One Sorrowing Heart”.

Hattie McDaniel

In her very distinguished career, which spanned more than three decades, she appeared in over 290 films.

Other works

When her music career got to a standstill, McDaniel shifted her attention to other jobs. In 1929, after the crashing of the stock market, the singer was hired by Club Madrid as one of their washroom attendants. Despite being stationed close to the washroom, McDaniel found a way to become a performer at the club. Her new role didn’t come easy since her boss was reluctant to give her the opportunity to perform. It took the efforts of some customers to convince the owner of the club to give the singer a chance.

After two years, she joined her siblings in Los Angeles. In order to make some money for herself, she took a number of jobs including cook and maid.

Hattie McDaniel

Other notable films that Hattie McDaniel appeared in are: “Since You Went Away”, “In This Our Life”, “Alice Adams”, and “The Big Wheel”. She was cast as Minnie in “The Big Wheel”, a 1949 drama sport film directed Edward Ludwig.

Acting career

Hattie revived her career in the entertainment industry during the early 1930s. With the help of her brother, Sam McDaniel, she earned a spot on a radio show in 1931. On radio, she was known as “Hi-Hat Hattie”. Her performance on the show earned her widespread attention. With this thought, it is possible that Hattie gave up her musical career to focus on acting which has earned her nationwide fame.

A year later, she received her maiden film role as a cast member in “The Golden West”. She went on to play minor roles in a number of films before rising to fame with her roles as Aunt Dilsey in the John Ford-direct film “Judge Priest” which was released in 1934.

Her role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind”

Hattie McDaniel

African-American actress Hattie McDaniel (1893-1952) featured alongside Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh in Victor Fleming’s 1939 critically acclaimed historical romance film “Gone with the Wind”. Image (L-R): McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland, and Vivien Leigh

Before starring in 1939’s “Gone with the Wind”, the former singer had starred in other notable films. Her performances in those movies made her a prominent figure in Hollywood. When film producer David O. Selznick (1902 – 1965) boasted that he would produce the greatest movie in history, he decided to line up some of the finest actors in Hollywood.

McDaniel, like many other actresses, auditioned for the role of Mammy, a house servant. According to many pundits, the auditioning for the role was as competitive as that for the main character. It has been reported that Eleanor Roosevelt, then First Lady of the United States, pleaded with Selznick to use Elizabeth McDuffie, Roosevelt’s personal maid, for the role.

Out of the numerous actresses, McDaniel was awarded the role. She was joined on set by other renowned movie stars like Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, and Leslie Howard. Hattie played the role so well that the character became one of the most liked persons in the movie.

Just how successful was Hattie McDaniel’s “Gone with the Wind”?

In “Gone with the Wind”, Hattie McDaniel starred alongside stellar performers like Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Clark Gable, and Vivien Leigh. The film was directed by American filmmaker Victor Fleming. The screenplay was written by Sidney Howard, and the cinematography was done by Ernest Haller.

Gone with the Wind, a film adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel of the same title, was a huge box office success. The film received critical reviews and many honors, including ten nominations at the 12th Academy Awards in 1940, winning “Best Picture”, “Best Actress”, “Best Director”, “Best Supporting Actress”, “Best Screenplay”, and many others.

When adjusted for inflation, experts claim that the film is one of the highest-grossing films in history.

In 1989, the film was selected to be preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry.

Gone with the Wind

Victor Fleming’s 1939 film “Gone with the Wind” won 12 nominations at the 12th Academy Awards ceremony held at the Coconut Grove at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles

Why was Hattie McDaniel prevented from attending the premier of Gone with the Wind?

At the premier of “Gone with the Wind” in Atlanta, Georgia, Hattie McDaniel and other black stars were not allowed into the Leow’s Grand Theatre, which then a whites-only theater. Bear in mind, this was in 1939, and the United States was still a place rife with racial segregation and racism.

Gone with the Wind

Despite her role in the film, the Kansas-born entertainer did not make it to the premiering. This was because the event was held at the Atlanta-based Loew’s Grand Theater where blacks were not allowed to enter. This was primarily due Atlanta’s Jim Crow Laws. And even at the Academy Awards ceremony which saw her win her first Oscar, she and her fellow black actresses and actors were placed at a segregated table. Image: The 1939 premier of Gone with the Wind at the Leow’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. The event was attended by several thousands of people.

Winning the Academy Award

At the 12th edition of the Academy Awards, “Gone with the Wind” received thirteen nominations of which it won ten. For her role as Mammy, Hattie was shortlisted for the “Best Supporting Actress” prize alongside other prominent movie stars like Olivia de Havilland, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Edna May Oliver.

Hattie walked home with the coveted prize, and in her acceptance speech she expressed the hope that she would become a credit to her race.

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Disappearance of McDaniel’s Oscar award

The location of McDaniel’s Academy Award has been the subject of many media debates over the years. While some reports have indicated that the prize had been stolen, others also argue that it might have been destroyed during the civil rights protests.It was the wish of the actress that her award would be kept at the drama department of Howard University. She probably wanted to use it as a source of motivation to the younger generation who would like to pursue a career in the film industry.

Her wish was granted and the award was left in the care of the school after the actress’ death in 1952. In 1992, it was revealed that the prize was missing from the school. This drew the attention of many critics who blamed the institution for negligence.

Over a decade later, The Huffington Post reported that Hattie’s Oscar was seized by some angry protesters during the civil right fights which happened in the 1960s. According to the publication, the award was thrown into the Potomac River.

However, W. Burlette Carter, a researcher from George Washington University Law School, in her 2011 investigation refuted the report by The Huffington Post. She was of the opinion that the award had been stored at a secret place in Howard University’s drama department. She also blamed inadequate record-keeping for the confusion of the whereabouts of the award.

Other honors

Hattie McDaniel

For her major contribution to film and theater, she was honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Setting the pace for other African American actors and actresses, McDaniel has been honored by many institutions. After her death, the American actress was voted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. She has also been celebrated with a couple of stars on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In addition to that, the actress became a Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame inductee in 2010 joining the likes of Justina Ford (1871–1952), first black female physician from Denver; and Mamie Eisenhower (1896–1979), former First Lady of the United States.

In 2006, the U.S. Postal Service featured her image on one of their postal stamps. This was to honor her role in the development of the film industry.

Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel was known for her singing abilities, recording a number of music tracks in the 1920s. She also holds the record of being the first African American woman to sing on radio.


Despite her popularity, the actress was criticized for not fighting for the black community. While a section of the community saw her as a selfish being, others also argued that she was too soft to stand up against some of the roles she was given.

She received backlash from many groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organization constantly complained about the stereotypical roles that black actors in the United States were given. They usually played characters of maids or people with low positions.

In her response, McDaniel said it would be better to play the role of a maid and receive a respectable income than to be one and receive a small salary. She refused to join any civil group until 1947 when she became a member of the Negro Actors Guild of America.

Famous African American soldiers during the Civil War


Hattie was in four different marriages. She was married to Howard Hickman until his death in 1915. Seven years later, she became the wife of George Langford. She again lost her husband in 1925 after he was shot.

In 1941, after a short ceremony at Tucson in Arizona, the actress became the wife of real estate agent James Lloyd Crawford. However, the marriage lasted for four years. She later tied the knot with interior decorator, Larry Williams.

Hattie McDaniel

In 2006, the United States Postal Service honored the African-American actress by displaying her picture on a U.S. postage stamp.

Cause of death

McDaniel started complaining of a heart problem in 1950. For two years, she received lots of medical care but that wasn’t enough to keep her alive. The celebrated actress kicked the bucket in 1952 after battling breast cancer.

She was buried at Rosedale Cemetery, though her wish was to be interred at the famous Hollywood Cemetery. When the family refused to re-bury her at the latter, a cenotaph was erected at the cemetery in her honor. The structure has since become a famous tourist site.

Hattie McDaniel

The renowned actress passed away due to breast cancer. She was 59. She desired to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. However, due to the racial segregation back then, her wish was declined as blacks could not be buried there. Instead, the legendary African-American actress was buried at Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. Image: Hattie McDaniel burial place at Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Other interesting facts about Hattie McDaniel

  • Some popular films that she starred in were “In This Our Life”, which was released in 1942, and “Song of the South” which premiered four years later.
  • Hattie suffered racism at the 1940 Academy Awards. She was made to sit at an isolated table in the auditorium.
  • Out of her over 290 movies, she received only 83 on-screen credits.
Hattie McDaniel's cenotaph at the Hollywood Cemetery in Los Angeles

In the late 1990s, however, Hollywood Cemetery is said to have sought permission from her family to have her re-interred in the cemetery. Her family declined the offer; therefore, the cemetery built a cenotaph (i.e. an empty tomb) in honor of the actress. Image: Hattie McDaniel’s cenotaph

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