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In part two of our Black History Month Spotlight Series, we take a look at the inspirational life lead by Hattie McDaniel, a woman who shattered boundaries by being the first African American woman to win an Academy Award.
Hattie McDaniel was born in 1898 and was the youngest of 13 children. She came from a long line of performers and quickly fell in love with being in the spotlight. Her father was a minister; her mother was a gospel singer, so naturally was accustomed to the entertainment industry an early age. Hattie was one of two black children in her elementary school in Denver, but her bubbly personality and exceptional signing voice propelled her to popularity within her small school. Friends and family report that she was constantly singing, and was involved in music at school and church. As she got older, she found excitement performing skits and dances in front of an audience and eventually wrote her own songs.
Hattie left school as a sophomore to pursue her passion as a full-time minstrel performer. She traveled with her father through the west, putting on minstrel shows with other black actors. When her father retired, Hattie found herself as part of more publicized touring companies and fell in love with writing show tunes.
Hattie’s life had its fair share of trials and tribulations. After only being married three months, Hattie’s husband George was killed. But this did not stop her from following her dreams. In 1925 she debuted on Denver’s KOA radio station. She was one of the first African American women to be broadcasted over the radio.
Hattie found her self unemployed during The Great Depression and moved to Milwaukee for work. She started as a bathroom attendant at Sam’s Pick Club Madrid. She was quickly promoted to a performer at the club and worked there for a year. When she moved to California, her brother was able to get her a small part in a radio show he was a part of. It didn’t take long for listeners to fall in love with Hattie’s fun personality and smooth vocals, and she became a huge success.
California was good to Hattie, and she starred in 12 films in 1936 alone. The role she is most famous for came in 1940 when she played Mammy in Gone With the Wind. She won an Oscar for best supporting actress, the first time an African American ever won this prestigious award.
Hattie went through many obstacles in the 40’s, such as divorce, false pregnancy and found herself in the middle of legal troubles led by racists in the industry. These issues sent Hattie into a depression, but things took a turn for the better in 1947 when she won the role of Beulah on the hit radio show Beulah. She was the first black performer to take on a role intended for the general audience. 20 million Americans tuned in every evening to listen to Hattie.
In 1951 Hattie suffered a heart attack and then was diagnosed with cancer a few months later. She passed away in 1952.
Hattie’s unwavering work ethic and desire to break barriers made her a role model for men and women everywhere. Her commitment to following her dreams and not being a victim to circumstance allowed her to bring laughter and entertainment to millions of people in her lifetime.
Although she is not buried there, there is a memorial for Hattie at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.
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