Hattie McDaniel Was Born into Slavery, Lived Through Civil War & Poverty — Her Tough Childhood

Before Hattie McDaniel became a world-famous movie star, she once had to suffer through a tough childhood. Both of her parents were born into slavery, which affected her large family. 

Before being the first African-American woman ever to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel had to endure a traumatic past. Her parents, Susan and Henry, were both slaves. 

During the Civil War, Hattie’s father joined the Tennessee 12th US Colored Infantry Regiment, fighting for their union during the Battle of Nashville in 1864. Unfortunately, his jaw was shattered during the war, leaving an open wound inside his mouth. 

Hattie McDaniel with her Academy Award for “Gone with the Wind” circa 1940 | Source: Getty Images

After the war, Henry received minimal medical treatment and endured constant pain in his mouth while working hard labor jobs to make ends meet. In 1893, Hattie, the couple’s last of 13 children, was born. 

By then, the family had already migrated near Wichita, Kansas. They were so poor that Hattie malnourished upon birth, weighing only three and a half pounds. They then moved to Denver, where they lived off Henry’s small pension from the US government for his military service. 

Hattie McDaniel circa 1947 | Source: Getty Images

Despite living in poverty, the McDaniel family was tight-knit. Hattie grew up singing in the church choir and attending integrated schools. She loved to perform so much that her mother would give her a nickel to stop performing at times. 

Hattie and the rest of her family lived through the hardships and discrimination they faced. She and her siblings became entertainment trailblazers in Denver, creating plays and reviews for the Black community. 

Hattie McDaniel viewing a Camera Exhibit in New York in 1941 | Source: Getty Images

By 1914, Hattie and her sister Etta started the McDaniel Sisters Company, which worked on an all-female minstrel show. It was there that the future Academy Award winner developed her “Mammy” character, something she would become famous for in years to come. 

In the 1920s, Hattie lived as a blues singer, often called “the Old Pep Machine” and the “Sepia Sophie Tucker.” She would work as a domestic helper or a cook to bring food to the table between performing and writing blues songs. 

Hattie McDaniel, star of the CBS Radio program “The Beulah Show” on November 14, 1947 | Source: Getty Images

By 1929, Hattie traveled as part of the Florenz Ziegfeld touring company of “Show Boat.” The producer had to let most of his performers go, and Hattie was stuck in Milwaukee, where she was unfamiliar. 

She found a job as a restroom attendant at a nightclub called Sam Pick’s Suburban Inn. One time, the management suddenly needed an act. She stepped in, singing “St. Louis Blues.” She was hired on the spot and stayed there for two years before the club closed down. 

Hattie McDaniel in Hollywood, California circa 1947 | Source: Getty Images

After her stint at the club, with only $20 in her wallet, Hattie decided to hop on a bus to Hollywood. Years later, she became the go-to actress for playing comedic yet sassy maids. 

Hattie was rejected by the NAACP because they felt that her roles depicted racist stereotypes.

Hattie McDaniel with her Academy Award for “Gone with the Wind” circa 1940 | Source: Getty Images

She was cast on “Gone With the Wind,” a movie that would change her life for good. While some members of the Black community were against the film, Hattie had this to say:

“There is nothing in this picture that will injure colored people. If there was, I wouldn’t be in it.” 

During the movie’s December 15, 1939 premiere, Atlanta demanded that no Black actors attend. Therefore, Hattie and her other co-star Butterfly McQueen were not in attendance. 

Instead, Hattie received a telegram from “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell who wrote: “Wish you could have heard the applause.” She would end up winning a historic Oscar, which ended up being a double-edged sword. 

She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and accepted the award at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel. At the time, the nightclub did not allow Black patrons. 

However, “Gone With the Wind” producer David O. Selznick requested them to allow Hattie into the building. The request was granted, but she had to sit at a far table separate from her co-stars.

After earning the award, she shared that her “own people” were happy. They believed that Hollywood honored their entire race when they gave her the Oscar. 

Despite bringing pride to the community, Hattie was rejected by the NAACP because they felt that her roles depicted racist stereotypes. The opinions did not bother her, as she did everything she could to uplift her peers. 

Throughout her career, Hattie worked in over three hundred films in seventeen years. She was busy filming “The Beulah Show” when she found out that she had breast cancer, which slowed down her career. 

The actress was married three times, although she never had any children. Her first husband, Howard J. Hickman, died in 1915. She was then married to Nym Lankfard from 1922 to 1938. 

Her third husband was Larry C. Williams, an interior designer. They divorced after only one year of marriage. In her will, she requested that her ex-husband be given $1, while a chunk of her estate went to her brother, Sam “Deacon” McDaniel. 

Throughout her marriages, there was a longstanding rumor that Hattie was in a relationship with Tallulah Bankhead. Several projects hinted at the legitimacy of the rumor, but neither party involved ever admitted it. 

Tallulah Bankhead in a promotional shot for Paramount Pictures circa 1932 | Source: Getty Images

In 1952, Hattie died at the age of 57 from breast cancer. Before she passed away, she threw a “deathbed party” where people were drinking and laughing. 

Hattie originally wanted to be buried in Hollywood. However, cemeteries were segregated at the time. However, in 1999, her wish came true when a pink and gray monument was made for her in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. 

Hattie remains a legendary figure in the industry. A movie called “Behind the Smile” is being produced about her life. Raven Goodwin has been tapped to play the actress, and fans are excited to see the indie film unfold. 

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