February 29, 1940. Hattie McDaniel sat in the back of a room, behind crowded tables designated for Hollywood’s elite. She was purposely tucked away, out of sight, along with her date for the night at the 12th Annual Academy Awards. Seated in the “black” section, there was only one table with two chairs where Hattie sat bringing royal color to a pale occasion. Her dark chocolate full figure was draped elegantly in a long blue gown that swept the floor like so many of her maid roles had called for. She wore a cute headband with white flowers attached, gardenia's blossoming to the right side of things, like an attempt at a hopeful new day in Hollywood.
Hattie knew her category was next when the presenter took to the podium. “I’m really especially happy that I’m chosen to present this particular plaque. To me it seems more than just a plaque of gold. It opens the doors of this roof, moves back the walls, and it enables us to embrace the whole of America. An America that we love. An America that is almost alone in the world today as it recognizes and pays tribute to those who’ve given their best regardless of creed, race or color,” the presenter said. “It is with the knowledge that this entire nation will stand and salute the presentation of this plaque, that I present the Academy Award for the best performance of an actress in a supporting role during 1939 to Hattie Mcdaniel.”
As slow and steady as those well spoken words came, Hattie quickly walked toward the stage, passing the table of her Gone with the Wind Cast. They were nominated for a record ten awards that year, including Hattie’s win, but she was still prohibited by segregation laws from sitting with those she’d worked so hard beside. They dismissed her like the house slave she'd played.
Still, Hattie took the stage. She spoke steady, quickly, and short enough to prevent herself from bursting into tears for the world to witness. And she was humble, more than the back-talking, assertive slave role of “Mammy” that had earned the win.
“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”
Hattie nearly ran off the stage when done, dabbing tears, passing her fellow castmates at the Gone with the Wind table. And she sat back in her “special” area, in the back of room, away from everyone else.
The segregation had become something Hattie was familiar with. She was banned from appearing at the Georgia premiere of Gone with the Wind, because of the theater’s racist Jim Crow policies. Unable to hear the cheers of Atlanta’s mayor and so many others in high society who applauded her performance after seeing the film, her costar, Clark Gable, threatened to boycott the premiere because Hattie wasn’t allowed to attend. But she had a way with words, convincing Gable that it would be good form to appear. Never publically speaking up about the racism she faced, Hattie preferred to fight hate with success and aggressive pursuits of an acting career. “I have always felt that people expect for me to entertain them, but not to try to influence them as career,” she once said. “Beulah is everybody’s friend.”
That last sentence angered black progressives. As the first African American to star in her own radio show, Hattie’s Beulah was about a maid who helped solve her master’s problems. The show was later turned into a TV comedy, that later starred the great Hattie McDaniel. And despite being at the top of her career, she was ostracized by groups like the NAACP and other civil rights organizations fighting for racial equality. They pointed fingers at McDaniel for wanting to work within a system that promoted demeaning images of African Americans. But Hattie sucked her teeth. “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid?” She famously said adding, “If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one."
Was she selling out? Perhaps to some. Or was she putting in the work to break necessary barriers?
Hattie knew what it was like to scrub toilets and floors. As a kid growing up in Kansas, she performed with her brothers and sisters, dancing and singing. Becoming a young adult, she only survived by being a maid in a lounge. It was a job that eventually led her to a regular gig on the stage of that same club when the owner got wind of her brassy, bluesy voice. Afterwards, Hattie made the move to Los Angeles, where she sustained herself by, again, taking the only job she could find, as a maid. Her familiarity with housecleaning and servant work became like an actor's sensory skill workshop for the nearly 100 roles she went on to play – many of them being maids.
Hattie wasn’t completely apathetic to the plight of African Americans. She regularly performed for black troops overseas with a troupe she put together featuring Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, and the only white member, actress Betty Davis. And back in LA, when racists attempted to block her and other actors of color from living in mansions in the predominantly aristocratic white area of Sugar Hill, McDaniel organized the black homeowners, fought back, won and threw some of the biggest Hollywood parties attended by A-listers yearly.
But battling the powers that be in Hollywood was not the professional risk she was willing to take or be criticized into doing. Pushing back against blacks that hated her work, Hattie aligned herself with journalists who wrote sympathetic stories. One Hollywood columnist, Hedda Hopper, went on to publish a piece that said Hattie “had not been victimized by the whites.” Instead, said Hopper, McDaniel “had been attacked by certain members of her own race” simply because she had tried to earn an honest dollar by playing roles those critics thought degrading to Negroes.”
Hattie’s perspective was one still echoed today by many, arguing that her critics were simply "embarrassed" by the mammies and maids that were part of the history and legacy of black women. By taking these roles and rising because of them, McDaniel felt she was helping the race to advance as well.
When not fighting for professional respect from Hollywood and those of her color, Hattie’s personal world was where she worked to thrive in happiness. Reflecting the stereotypical life of a famous actress, she was married four times. Her first husband came in 1922. He died the same year. In 1938 she married again, but divorced months later. Her third mate came in 1941, but their marriage ended in 1945 after a false pregnancy pulled them apart. And she walked down the aisle again in 1949, only to leave him a year later citing his jealousy and inability to handle her career. "I haven't gotten over it yet," she said. "I got so I couldn't sleep. I couldn't concentrate on my lines.”
After battling depression and suicide attempts, the only thing that seemed to bring Hattie happiness was her work and craft in making the world, no matter the color, laugh. She seemed to shine on the inside, smiling and singing as she did during carefree childhood days back in Wichita, Kansas.
In 1952, Hattie was forced to leave Beulah due to a bout with breast cancer. She wrote her will. “I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket and a pillow of red roses. I also wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery."
Even with an Oscar to her name, McDaniel was not allowed to be buried in Hollywood’s Cemetery to the stars because her body was black. In 1999, under new ownership, embarrassed by its racist history, Cemetery management offered to honor Hattie’s burial request. When denied, they built a large cenotaph paying tribute to McDaniel’s work. Today it’s a popular tourist attraction.
Hattie’s last will and testament included having her Oscar sent to Washington, DC’s Howard University for safe keeping, since the school honored her with a fabulous luncheon after the Oscar win. But today, McDaniel’s award is mysteriously missing. Rumors abound as to what happened. Like the one suspecting it was thrown into the Potomac River by rioting students in 1960 protesting Hattie’s slave role. Others say it was stolen by a resentful former faculty member. Valued to be worth half a million dollars today, sadly Hattie’s first black Oscar can’t be found, held or seen.
Still, its documented memory holds majestic power in the doors it forced America to push open and accept, when McDaniel graced the Academy stage back in 1940. And now, 74 years later, as Lupita Nyong’o is poised to win the very same supporting actress Oscar for her field slave role in 12 Years a Slave, it is difficult not to question how far thespians of color have actually come in receiving diversified Hollywood acting recognition. Although today, Lupita receives more support and respect than Hattie ever did. The truth is that if it hadn’t been for McDaniel earning $2000 a week for the house negro and maid roles she performed with heavy-handed sass and the outspoken, slick talking dignity that her image and reputation molded, there would be that much less, black, Oscar legacy to measure by. Even if the winning role and history may still seem similar to modern day.
RIP Hattie Mcdaniel June 10, 1895 – October 27, 1952