On this day in 1940, American actress and singer Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African American to win an Academy Award. She took the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Gone With the Wind, a David O. Selznick schlock-fest both revered and reviled by critics and film historians for its portrayal of the Old South; the picture also swept the prestigious Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Film Editing, and Actress categories.
Born to a former slave in 1893’s Wichita, Kansas, McDaniel was raised in Denver, Colorado, where she exhibited her musical and dramatic talent early on. She left school in 1910 to become a performer in several traveling minstrel groups and later achieved another pioneering first as one of the first black women to be broadcast over American radio. With the onset of the Great Depression, however, little work was to be found for minstrel or vaudeville players, and to support herself McDaniel went to work as a bathroom attendant at Sam Pick’s Club Madrid in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Although the club as a rule hired only white performers, some of its patrons became aware of McDaniel’s vocal talents and encouraged Pick to make an exception. Pick himself had previously been shot by a bank robber, fined for operating a gambling joint and targeted in a nightclub bombing; he had some adventure in his soul. McDaniel performed at his club for more than a year until she left for Los Angeles, where her brother found her a small role on a local radio show, The Optimistic Do-Nuts; known as Hi-Hat Hattie, she became the show’s main attraction before long.
Two years after McDaniel’s film debut in 1932, she landed her first major part with John Ford’s picture Judge Priest (1934), which gave her the opportunity to sing a duet with humorist Will Rogers. Her role as a happy Southern servant in The Little Colonel (1935), a Shirley Temple vehicle that also featured Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, rendered her a controversial figure in the liberal black community, highly offended by Hollywood’s stereotyping. When criticized for taking such roles, McDaniel responded that she would rather play a maid in the movies than be one in real life.
McDaniel made good on her pledge; during the 1930’s she played the role of maid or cook in nearly 40 films, including Alice Adams (1935), in which her comic characterization of a grumbling, obstreperous maid nailed the dinner party scene, making it one of the most memorable the film. Clearly having the feisty servant shtick down, McDaniel was a shoo-in for the role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind.
At the end of World War 2, during which McDaniel had organized entertainment for black troops, the NAACP and other liberal black groups lobbied Hollywood for an end to the stereotyped roles in which McDaniel had become typecast; as an unintended consequence, her Hollywood opportunities began drying up. Radio, however, was slower to respond to such pressure, and in 1947 McDaniel became the first African American to star in a weekly radio program aimed at a general audience when she agreed to play the role of a maid on The Beulah Show. In 1951, while filming the first six segments of a television version of the popular show, she suffered a heart attack. Quite tragically, She recovered sufficiently to record a number of radio shows in 1952 but died soon after of breast cancer at age 58.
Turning briefly back to her own exodus from Milwaukee, McDaniel had neglected to settle her account with Milwaukee Gas Light Co. In 1938, she wrote the company a letter, stating “Gentlemen: Enclosed find money order for $2.87, which you can see I owed for some time. I left Milwaukee because I was trying to get in the movies, which I succeeded in doing . . . I wasn’t able right offhand to take care of my previous obligations, but you can see by my keeping the stubs and bills that my intentions were good . . . trusting this will prove my sincerity and honesty, I am very truly yours, Miss Hattie McDaniel.” It turned out McDaniel had overpaid her bill by $1.11.
As it was later reported by the Milwaukee Journal at the time, “That sum was returned with ‘congratulations and good luck’ by the Milwaukee Gas Light Co.”