Category: Our History
Published on Wednesday, 22 April 2015 15:47
Written by Laura Meyers
Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952) owned several homes in the West Adams area, each one finer than the last, as her career progressed from singer and vaudeville entertainer to world-renown actress.
McDaniel was born in 1895 in Wichita, Kansas, the daughter former slaves. Hattie toured the country as a singer with Professor George Morrison’s Orchestra, starting in 1915. In the mid-1920s, she became the first African American to sing on network radio in the United States.
But when the stock market crashed in 1929, the only work McDaniel could find was as a washroom attendant and waitress at Club Madrid in Milwaukee. McDaniel was eventually allowed to take the stage and became a regular. In 1931, she went to Hollywood to seek a film career and began as an extra before capturing larger roles
. When she could not get film work, she took jobs as a maid or cook. Her brother, Sam McDaniel, was working on KNX radio program called The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour,
and he was able to get his sister a spot. She appeared on radio as “Hi-Hat Hattie,”
a bossy maid who often "forgets her place." Her show became extremely popular, but her salary was so low that she had to continue working as a maid.
In 1932, Hi-hat Hattie made her movie debut in The Golden West. She then appeared in a number of movies, including Saratoga, where she sang with Clark Gable. In 1934, McDaniel joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Her role as a happy Southern servant in The Little Colonel (1935) made her a controversial figure in the liberal black community, which sought to end Hollywood’s stereotyping. Nonetheless, McDaniel was an established figure, and during the 1930s she played the role of maid or cook in nearly 40 films.
These comic, stereotypical roles in which she was cast made her a target of black activists, who charged that McDaniel "degraded herself and her race." Responding to this criticism of her film role choices, McDaniel would say, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week, than be a maid for $7.”
She is most often remembered for her role as “Mammy” in the 1939 film Gone With The Wind
, for which in 1940 she became the first African American to win an Oscar.
Gossip columnist Louella Parsons reported: "Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar, by her fine performance of "Mammy" in Gone With The Wind....Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen's taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor. She put her heart right into those words and expressed not only for herself, but for every member of her race, the gratitude she felt that she had been given recognition by the Academy.”
During the 1930s, McDaniel had lived in a small home in Jefferson Park. But after her Oscar win, she purchased a handsome, $10,000 Mediterranean Revival mansion on Harvard Boulevard high atop so-called “Sugar Hill,” the exclusive West Adams Heights Tract. McDaniel loved to entertain, and often invited both aspiring young actors and soldiers to stay in her manse. But trouble was around the corner – literally. Some white homeowners in West Adams Heights attempted to renew deed clauses, by then expired, that restricted ownership to “Caucasians.” These homeowners tried to remove McDaniel and other African Americans from their homes on the hill.
But Hattie McDaniel was as devoted to civil rights as she was to her craft. McDaniel helped organize her black neighbors in West Adams Heights to advocate against these “restrictive racial covenants,” which were used to prevent people of color from purchasing homes in neighborhoods of their choosing. McDaniel – along with her friend and fellow actress Louise Beavers, who also purchased a home in West Adams Heights – became one of the named defendants in a case, Tollhurst v. Venerable, that marked the beginning of the end of restrictive covenants. A Los Angeles judge ruled in McDaniel’s favor. Eventually this case and a group of other cases were consolidated and went all the way to the Supreme Court. In the end, the Supreme Court struck down restrictive covenants, putting an end to this form of housing discrimination, not just in this neighborhood of West Adams Heights, but throughout the country.
McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood: one for her contributions to radio at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard, and one for motion pictures at 1719 Vine Street. But it is her home on Sugar Hill that marks her contributions to civil rights. For information about visiting Hattie McDaniel’s home on Saturday, June 6, CLICK HERE