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While many people simply know Hattie McDaniel as the first African American to win an Oscar in 1940 for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, there is much more to her story than just that. She was born June 10, 1885 in Wichita, Kansas. She was the 13th child of a family of entertainers. Her father was a minister who played the banjo, and her mother was a gospel singer.
McDaniel began her professional singing, dancing, and acting career while still in high school, and in 1910, she left school to perform full time with her father’s minstrel troupe. She began performing on radio stations in 1925 and became the first African American woman to sing on American radio.
After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1930s and landing a couple of small acting gigs, McDaniel accepted the role that would define her career in 1939. She played the house servant, Mammy, in Gone With the Wind, and became the first African American to win an Oscar. None of the film’s black actors were allowed to attend the film’s premiere.
McDaniel’s role in Gone With the Wind as well as additional roles that she played through the 1940s brought her the criticism of NAACP president Walter White who felt that the roles were stereotypical and derogatory. McDaniel responded to the controversy by “asserting her prerogative to accept whatever role she” chose. She also highlighted the fact that characters such as Mammy showed audiences that black servants could do more than just measure up to their employers.
Eventually, McDaniel’s conflict with the NAACP and the simultaneous unfolding of the Civil Rights Movement caused the roles she was typecast for to dry up. She made a return to radio, and won the approval of the NAACP by using her role to break racial stereotypes despite playing a maid.
Sadly, in 1952, McDaniel was diagnosed with breast cancer and died shortly after. She was posthumously awarded two starts on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was also inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
Check out the following video to learn more about McDaniel’s life. The video is a mini biography published by bio.com.