Hattie McDaniel

Film actress Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar, for her supporting role as Mammy in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. She grew up in Denver, Colorado, the youngest daughter of Susan Holbert and Henry McDaniel, an ex-slave and Civil War veteran. Hattie decided to become an actress at age six. “I knew that I could sing and dance . . . my mother would give me a nickel sometimes to stop,” she recalled. Singing, dancing, and acting would become her pathway out of a life of poverty. McDaniel enrolled in Denver’s East High School 1908, where she won a drama contest sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and joined a local minstrel troop. She left high school in 1910 to join her brother Otis McDaniel’s new carnival company, touring small towns throughout Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska. To make ends meet, she took jobs as a maid and laundress. Show business in the early 1900s was a man’s world. But McDaniel and her sister Etta Goff launched an innovative all-female “black-face” minstrel show in 1914 called the McDaniel Sisters Company. In these early shows, Hattie developed her trademark minstrel character: an assertive “Mammy” who defied and critiqued racial and gender stereotypes of the era through comedy, in the tradition of generations of African American performers before her. McDaniel gained stardom as lead singer in George Morrison’s Melody Hounds, a popular Denver-based touring jazz orchestra. The touring life brought her to Hollywood, California, where she launched her film career as Mom Beck in The Little Colonel, starring the child actress Shirley Temple. In 1939, McDaniel landed her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind appearing with superstars Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Segregation laws prevented her from attending the film’s premier in Atlanta, Georgia, but later she proudly accepted her Academy Award as best supporting actress for this role. McDaniel appeared in more than 300 films and her own radio series, Beulah. She shared her success by donating generously to educational causes, including the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), and scholarships for her sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho. She died in 1952. In 2006, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in honor of Hattie McDaniel’s legendary life and achievements.