Hattie McDaniel: Hollywood’s First Black Movie Star You Didn’t Know
In light of 2016’s 88th Annual Academy Awards controversy with no nominees of color being recognized, we turn back the clock and look at actress Hattie McDaniel, the first Black woman ever to win an Oscar at the 12th Annual Academy Awards over 65 years ago. Many think that Hattie was just content playing the “mammy” or servant role, but there are sides of Hattie that you may not know.
In addition to acting, McDaniel was a professional singer-songwriter, comedian, stage actress, radio performer, and television star. She was the first black woman to sing on the radio in the U.S. During her career, McDaniel appeared in over 300 films, although she received screen credits for only nearly 80 of them.
In fact, McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood: one at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard for her contributions to radio and one at 1719 Vine Street for motion pictures. In 1975, she was inducted posthumously into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
In her acceptance speech at the 12th Annual Academy Awards on February 29, 1940, Hattie’s words were brief and to the point:
“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: 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.”
McDaniel received a plaque-style Oscar, approximately 5 1/2 x 6 inches, the type awarded to all Best Supporting Actors and Actresses at that time. McDaniel and her escort were required to sit at a segregated table for two
McDaniel was a member of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority, one of four African-American Greek letter sororities in the United States at the time. During World War II, she served as chairman of the “Negro Division” of the Hollywood Victory Committee, providing entertainment for soldiers stationed at military bases. (The military was segregated, and black entertainers were not allowed to serve on white entertainment committees.) She elicited the help of her friend, actor Leigh Whipper, and other black entertainers for her committee. She also made numerous personal appearances at military hospitals, threw parties, and performed at United Service Organizations (USO) shows and war bond rallies to raise funds to support the war on behalf of the Victory Committee.
She joined actor Clarence Muse, one of the first black members of the Screen Actors Guild, in an NBC radio broadcast to raise funds for Red Cross relief programs for Americans that had been displaced by devastating floods and gained a reputation for generosity, lending money to friends and strangers alike.
McDaniel died at age 57 on October 26, 1952, of breast cancer in the hospital on the grounds of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills.
Detailed in Hattie’s will was her wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery, which is where many other stars were buried. But Hollywood Cemetery refused to allow her to be buried there, because it didn’t bury the bodies of black people. Her second choice was Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, where she lies today.
In 1999, Tyler Cassidy, the new owner of the Hollywood Cemetery that had renamed it…