Today’s Google Doodle honors what would have been the 85th birthday of acclaimed children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. At Speaking Up, we’ll take a look instead at Hattie McDaniel, also an artist but in a different field and an earlier time.
McDaniel was born on this date in 1895, and is best known for becoming the first African American performer to win an Academy Award (for her role in Gone with the Wind). At the Oscars ceremony in 1940, where she took home the prize for Best Supporting Actress, she was forced to sit at a segregated table.
McDaniel had many talents, and beyond her appearances in over 300 films, also performed on the stage, radio, and television. Her family background cultivated these talents, as her mother was a singer, two of her siblings were actors, and some members of her family collaborated as a traveling troupe. Thus, McDaniel got her start as a singer rather than an actress, eventually leading to a radio career and the production of several records. Following this success, she made her way to Los Angeles, where she was able to begin appearing in films while working side jobs as a maid. Little by little, she worked her way up to her first leading roles in the mid-1930s, and became mostly known for comic parts and for characters with big personalities.
This success allowed her to work steadily and to cultivate many Hollywood relationships, including a close friendship with Clark Gable. McDaniel’s dramatic turn in Gone with the Wind became her most famous role, though she continued to perform in radio and television throughout the 1940s. However, McDaniel was unable to attend the segregated film premiere in Atlanta, a theme encountered over and over again in reading her life story.
McDaniel also played the title character in the radio show The Beulah Show, and her popularity in the role led to the development of a TV series that would continue the story. McDaniel was only able to film 6 episodes of the series before becoming ill with breast cancer. She died at only 57 years old. McDaniel requested in her will that she be buried at the cemetery now known as Hollywood Forever, but again due to segregation, was buried elsewhere.
McDaniel’s legacy includes two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a listing in the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, and a U.S. Postal Service stamp in the Black Heritage Series. The future owner of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery placed a monument there, celebrating McDaniel’s life and recognizing her legacy.