American character actress, singer, and radio and television performer Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award in 1940 for her role in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind.
Often heavily criticized for playing maids and other stereotypical roles, she worked behind the scenes to battle racism and discrimination. She is often credited with subverting any idea of subservience through her interpretative performances. Encountering racism in Hollywood, she and several other black actors worked to change the film industry from within during the 1940s.
Born in Wichita, KS, June 10, 1893, and raised in Denver, CO, McDaniel showed signs of talent at an early age. She dropped out of school as a teenager to tour with vaudeville companies, traveling musical ensembles, and minstrel shows, including one run by her brother. She sang on Denver radio as early as 1925, and wrote and recorded several of her own songs.
She arrived in Hollywood in 1931 and soon began to appear in films. She is usually credited with appearing in more than 90 films, but by some estimates she is believed to have appeared in as many as 300, including uncredited roles as extras, maids, and chorus singers. She sang a duet with Will Rogers in Judge Priest (1934), a film directed by John Ford, and she often appeared alongside many of the brightest stars of the era, such as Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in Saratoga (1937), and Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams (1935), which featured a comic performance by McDaniel. Some of her other notable films included Show Boat (1936). She was also featured in This Our Life (1942), which was praised for the depth and humanity of its black characters, and Since You Went Away (1944).
From 1947 until 1952, McDaniel played the title role in The Beulah Show, which was broadcast on national radio. As the first radio show to feature a black star, The Beulah Show was praised by the NAACP and the National Urban League. Although McDaniel again played a maid, she insisted that her character not speak in dialect, and she successfully negotiated the right to alter scripts that did not meet her approval. She succumbed to Breast Cancer at 57 on October 26, 1952.