On February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award. McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895 and was the youngest of 13 children. She had a talent for singing and left school in 1910 to train with her father’s minstrel troupe. Fifteen years later, she was invited to sing on Denver’s KOA radio, earning the distinction of being the first African American woman to sing on the radio.
After moving to Los Angeles with two of her siblings, McDaniel became a radio personality on her brother’s KNX show. For several years, she was cast in minor roles in many films and gained recognition for her roles in the films Judge Priest and The Little Colonel. In 1939, McDaniel was cast as Mammy, Scarlet O’hara’s house slave in Gone With the Wind. This role would win her the title of the first African American to win an Oscar. Despite her record-breaking performance, McDaniel and her fellow black cast members were banned from attending the premiere.
McDaniel was widely criticized for taking roles that perpetuated negative black stereotypes. After repeated conflicts with the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), McDaniel stopped receiving job offers and so she returned to radio. With the NAACP’s blessing, she starred in the Beulah Show. Though she again played a maid, she used her role to break, rather than reinforce, racial stigmas.
In 1952, McDaniel was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and passed away on October 26, 1952. After her death, she was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for radio and one for film) and, in 1975, was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Hattie’s success in film paved the way for black actors and actresses for decades to come. Inscribed on her tombstone are the words “You are credit to your craft, your race, and to your family.”
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