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Hattie McDaniel – A Hollywood Pioneer

Feb 15, 2011 by Lisa Newton

When I’m doing research for an article, I learn.

Take yesterday.

Now, I know everyone isn’t into cemeteries, but I gained my interest honestly, from my Mother. She liked to poke around old cemeteries, read the headstones. Feeling sad when we found children, and happy when we saw long lives.

So, I wanted to visit Rosedale Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries in Los Angeles County, but first I wanted to find out a little about it.

That’s when I met Hattie McDaniel.

Well, I didn’t really meet her, as she died in 1952, but I came to learn about her incredible life. If you’ve ever seen Gone with the Wind, you’ll know her better as the feisty Mammy.

Born in Kansas in 1895, to former slaves, McDaniel was the youngest of 13 children.

Her Father was a Civil War veteran and her Mother sang religious songs, which is where McDaniel was able to obtain her singing talent.

After a few years of working with a touring black ensemble and a gig in radio, in 1931, she made her way to Los Angeles, joining her brother Sam and sisters Etta and Orlena.

Over the next few years, she worked with many of the top actors and directors of the time, Shirley Temple, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, Will Rogers, John Ford, Jean Harlow, Irene Dunne, Mae West, Bette Davis, and of course, Clark Gable.

In 1939, when the premiere of Gone with the Wind took place in Atlanta, Georgia, all of the Black actors were banned from the event, due to the Jim Crow laws.

However, by February 1940, McDaniel won the 1939 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first African American to win an Oscar.

Amazingly, McDaniel and other African American actors were criticized by the groups like the NAACP for taking roles of servants, to which she replied,

I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7.

In 1945, living in the West Adams area of LA, a few of her White neighbors didn’t like the idea that a few African Americans were moving into their neighborhood, so they took the families to court.

McDaniel organized the residents and fought to keep their homes. After visiting the area, Superior Judge Thurmond Clarke, threw the case out of court, saying:

It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations or evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th Amendment to the Federal Constitution. Judges have been avoiding the real issue too long.

All her life, McDaniel knocked down the walls of segregation in Hollywood and made her presence known. However, even in death, she was denied. It was her wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery, on Santa Monica Boulevard, but the owner refused because, in 1952, they didn’t take Black people.

Which leads me back to Rosedale Cemetery, the final resting place for Hattie McDaniel.

Although she received screen credits for around 80 films, McDaniel appeared in over 300. Through her elegance, wit, charm, and generosity, she gained the respect of the show business community and will forever be remembered as a trailblazer.

Plus, she has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for for her contributions to radio. and the other one for motion pictures.

Now, that I’ve told Hattie McDaniel’s story, I’ll do the same about Rosedale Cemetery tomorrow.

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Culture, Entertainment, Film, Los Angeles, SoCal
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