Get to Know Hattie McDaniel, Who Accepted Her Oscar in a "No-Blacks" Hotel
On February 29, 1940, the Oscars transformed completely.
"It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America," declared the Academy Award presenter about the Oscar in her hand for the year's Best Supporting Actress. Her words echoed through the "No-Blacks" Cocoanut Grove hotel in Los Angeles.
Seated at a small table along a far wall, removed from her fellow cast members, was Hattie McDaniel. You would not realize it from where she was sitting, but the actress played the head slave "Mammy" in the 12th Annual Academy Awards' best picture, "Gone With The Wind." And in just a moment McDaniel was about to make history at a contentious time for blacks — even before the Civil Rights movement.
But it was a long, trailblazing journey for McDaniel and that night at the Oscars was no different.
It took a special effort on the part of the film's director to even get her into the ceremony. At the table her white agent William Meiklejohn and escort F.P. Yober joined her. Flowers adorned her hair and she was surely dressed for the occasion.
And in just a few minutes, McDaniel performed her ultimate act, pushing the gates of a historically white institution open and embedding herself into Oscar history.
"I sincerely hope I should be a credit to my race and to the Motion Picture industry, my heart is too full to tell you just how I feel," she said in a moving acceptance speech.
But McDaniel returned to her table, far from the very team she was on set with. She was a mover and shaker, truly an actress before her time — or perhaps she created an entirely new one for women of color in film.
"It was as if I had done something wrong," she said in 1944 about her Oscar win.
Seventy Oscar ceremonies later, actress Mo'Nique paid homage to McDaniel after winning "Best Supporting Actress" in the film "Precious." In her acceptance speech, she began by thanking the Oscars for their recognition of exemplary performance and paying homage to the legendary actress.
quot;I wanna thank Ms. Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to, so that I would not have to," she said.
McDaniel was born to a poor family in Wichita, Kan., in 1893 and had twelve siblings. She was steadfast and did not want to be a maid like her mother and sisters. She was known for justifying her domestic roles in film and television saying, "I'd rather play a maid than be a maid."
In 1929 she landed her first gig on the musical "Show Boat" but the opportunity soon ended after a stock market crash fueled layoffs. After taking a job as a bathroom attendant at an Inn, McDaniel saw a new opportunity to step in as the venue's new performer. She sang and danced, earning tips and some income to help her move to L.A.
In 1931, McDaniel moved to L.A. living with her sister Etta and brother Sam. Her dark skin and full figure was said to lend her servant roles that many African-Americans were not type casted or assigned. By 1935, McDaniel was being described as one of the most eminent African-American actors.
On Jan. 27, 1939, McDaniel was assigned her Oscar-winning role as "Mammy" in "Gone With The Wind," which later followed her success as the first African-American woman starring on a radio show, earning her $1,000 a week — a true accomplishment for her time.
McDaniel passed away on Oct. 26, 1952, of breast cancer at the age of 57.
As we prepare for the Oscars on Sunday, we're remembering McDaniel, who was the first symbol of achieving absolute diversity in the Oscars as an African-American, a woman, and a remarkable and talented actress.
Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images; Ben Polin/CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images