By the mid-1920s, Hattie McDaniel became one of the first African American women to perform on radio. In 1934, she landed her on-screen break in the film Judge Priest. She then became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1940, for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. In 1947, after her career took a downturn, she began starring on CBS radio’s The Beulah Show.
McDaniel was born on June 10, 1893, in Wichita, Kansas, with some sources listing her year of birth as 1895. She was her parents’ 13th child. Her father, Henry, was a Civil War veteran who suffered greatly from war injuries and had a difficult time with manual labor. (Henry was later described by one of his sons as a minister, though this was a fictionalized account.) Her mother, Susan Holbert, was a domestic worker.
In 1901, McDaniel and her family moved to Denver, Colorado. There she attended the 24th Street Elementary School, where she was one of only two black students in her class. Her natural flair for singing—in church, at school and in her home—was apparent early on and gained her popularity among her classmates.
Radio and Vaudeville Performer
While at East River High School, McDaniel started professionally singing, dancing and performing skits in shows as part of The Mighty Minstrels. In 1909, she decided to drop out of school in order to more fully focus on her fledgling career, performing with her older brother’s own troupe. In 1911, she married pianist Howard Hickman and went on to organize an all-women’s minstrel show.
In the 1920s, McDaniel worked with Professor George Morrison’s orchestra and toured with his and other vaudeville troops for several years. By mid-decade, she was invited to perform on Denver’s KOA radio station.
Following her radio performance, McDaniel continued to work the vaudeville circuit and established herself as a blues artist, writing her own work. When projects weren’t coming in, she took on attendant work to supplement her income. Much to her relief, in 1929 she landed a steady gig as a vocalist at Sam Pick’s Suburban Inn in Milwaukee.
Pursuing the Hollywood Dream
A year or so later, McDaniel’s brother, Sam, and sister, Etta, convinced her to move to Los Angeles, where they had managed to procure minor movie roles for themselves. Sam was also a regular on a KNX radio show called The Optimistic Do-Nuts. Not long after arriving in L.A., McDaniel had a chance to appear on her brother’s program. She was a quick hit with listeners and was dubbed “Hi Hat Hattie” for donning formal wear during her first KNX performance.
1940 Academy Award for ‘Gone with the Wind ” Mammy”
1934 Hollywood Hits: ‘Judge Priest’ and ‘The Little Colonel’
1947 Late-Career Success: ‘The Beulah Show’