Hattie McDaniel (1898-1952) is best remembered as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, the first African American to win an Academy Award (as Best Supporting Actress). As Scarlett O’Hara’s maid, she was paid $450 per week, a lot more than other maids in 1939.
She has two life stories: her career as a singer, actress, and song writer, and her off-and-on conflict with civil rights leaders of her time. They thought her servant roles perpetuated racist stereotypes and set back the cause of civil rights.
She started singing and doing readings in elementary school in Denver, and became a full-time performer when she was 14, first with her parents and 12 older brothers and sisters’ minstrel show touring in the West. She worked her way up to Professor George Morrison’s nationally famous “Melody Hounds.” She also wrote dozens of show tunes such as “Sam Henry Blues,” “Poor Wandering Boy Blues,” and “Quittin’ My Man Today.”
Her first radio performance was in 1925 on Denver’s KOA station.
When the Depression hit, she worked for a year, first as a bathroom attendant, then a performer, in a Milwaukee nightclub. She moved to Hollywood, where her brother got her a small part in his radio show. She seized the opportunity and became one of the show’s most popular regulars.
McDaniel’s movie break came in 1934, in the Fox production of Judge Priest. She sang a duet with Will Rogers that was well received by the press and her fellow actors.
In 1935, a number of African American journalists claimed that The Little Colonel with Shirley Temple, and McDaniel as a happy black servant in the Old South, implied that black people might have been happier as slaves than they were as free individual. This movie marked the beginning of McDaniel’s long feud with the more progressive elements of the African American community.
Most of the black leadership, except the NAACP, gave McDaniel a pass on the servant role in GWTW. That character had more strength, intelligence, and innate dignity than the white people she worked for.
Her Academy Award was the highest world-wide recognition of an African American artist up to that time. The African American community considered that important racial progress — though she was not excluded from the world premier of the movie in Jim Crow Atlanta, Ga.
That was the grandest social event of the year. It attracted the cream of Hollywood royalty and Georgia high society. The newsreel played on nearly every movie screen in the country. So did her one minute acceptance speech at the Academy Award ceremony.
Practically all of Hattie McDaniel’s maid characters were smarter than the white families she served, and had the same innate dignity. In 1937’s Saratoga, before GWTW, she was also more intelligent than the foolish white people she served. In both movies, the most intelligent white person was Clark Gable, who treated Hattie’s maid character as an equal, and valued her respect,
Her last maid role was the title role in the successful radio sitcom Beulah, in the same mold as her previous smart, dignified maids. She was the first African American to have her own series on radio, and was preparing a TV version of the series when she died.
Eighty years after her career as a maid in movies and radio began, we realize that African American actors had no choice but to play servants for white audiences. Those performers did not make the world, or even the Hollywood studios that chose their scripts and roles, with an eye on what the white audience would accept.
It’s time to understand and forgive that generation of African American performers and recognize their ability and achievements. I would include in that group Jack Benny’s butler, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, whose servant character was superior in every way to Benny’s persona on the show.
I would even include Butterfly McQueen, the other black house servant in GWTW, whose characters really were stupid. She did not choose her roles or her unmistakable high-pitched voice. Her movie dialect was phony, and she was a gifted comedian.
If Sidney Poitier, a generation younger than McDaniel, was a transformational figure for African Americans in Hollywood, one could argue that McDaniel’s intelligent, dignified, often sassy servants paved the way for Sidney Poitier’s educated, middle-class characters, who deserved and demanded equal treatment and respect from white characters.