Hattie McDaniel, an early 20th century movie actress, was best known for her role as Mammy in the movie “Gone with the Wind” (1939), for which she received an Academy Award as best supporting actress — the first African American to be so honored. Hattie was friends with Clark Gable; played alongside Katharine Hepburn, Will Rogers, and other notables; had her likeness placed on a 2006 postage stamp; and has two stars in the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for cinema and one for radio). And, for a short time, she attended Franklin School on W. Mountain Avenue and lived on the three hundred block of Cherry Street right here in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Hattie’s father, Henry, had been born into slavery in Virginia. During the Civil War, he joined the Union Army, though he worked non-combat roles. After the war, Henry was a bit of a nomad. He began to preach in Baptist churches. He was also skilled at singing and oratory and would perform wherever he went. While in Nashville, Tennessee, he met Susan Holbert, a gospel singer. Henry and Susan were married in 1875 and had thirteen children, over half of whom died at birth or soon after.
The family settled for a time in Wichita, Kansas, which is where Hattie was born. Though Hattie’s birthdate is listed on some documents, and on her tombstone, as being June 10, 1895, a census taken in Kansas in 1895 states that she was two years old at the time. So it’s likely she was born in 1893.
After awhile the family decided to head west again, this time to Colorado. They settled in Fort Collins where Henry got work as a teamster. They rented a small house in the Black part of town (If you can say that a one block area that included four African-American families in among several White families constitutes such a thing.) at 317 Cherry Street.
There young Hattie (probably about 7 years old) made friends with a little White girl around the corner, Ruth Collamer. (Find out more about the Collamer family in this post about two of Ruth’s brothers.) They attended school together. As Hattie’s biographer, Carlton Jackson recounts,
At school, Hattie and Ruth played jacks on the flagstone sidewalks, and a game called, “Pom pom pullaway.” Hattie taught Ruth how to bounce a rubber ball while repeating in rhythm, “one, two, buckle your shoe.” Each afternoon after school Ruth’s father drove his cattle to pasture, always passing by the McDaniel’s residence on the way. Hattie frequently came out fo her house and walked wit the herd for a way, she and Ruth picking flowers (violets and “johnny jump ups” in the Spring), and, hand in hand, “hippety-hopping” through the fields.
But the McDaniels’ time in Fort Collins was short lived. According to Hattie’s biographer, the family moved to Denver in 1901. There Hattie excelled in singing and oration and would often give recitations to her classes. She loved to sing around the house and sometimes her mother would give her a dime if she would promise to stay quiet for awhile. Hattie confessed that it rarely worked for long. The music just kept bubbling out.
Hattie left high school early in order to follow her acting dream. She joined her brother Sam and sister Etta in Los Angeles to seek her fortune. By the time of her death in 1952 of breast cancer, Hattie had performed in 300 films (receiving credit in 80 of them). She was the first African-American to receive an Academy Award and one of only two African-American women to receive the award during the Twentieth Century. (The other being Whoopi Goldberg for her role in the movie, “Ghost.”) In fact, Hattie was the first Black person to attend the Academy Awards as a guest and not a servant, though she was still expected to sit apart from everyone else in the back of the room.
Hattie’s acceptance speech was short and humble:
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests, this is one of the happiest moments of my life and I want to thank each one of who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards; for your kindness that has made me feel very, very humble. And I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel and may I say thank you and God bless you.
You can watch both Hattie’s speech and Fay Bainter’s introduction on YouTube.
The NAACP chastised Hattie for taking roles in which she played a maid or servant. They felt it reinforced stereotypes of subservient Black women and they encouraged her to be more like Lena Horne. But Hattie’s response was, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”
Though Hattie was only in Fort Collins for a short time, residents have been proud to boast that this talented, head-strong woman spent part of her childhood right here in our little town.
Sources for this article:
“Hattie McDaniel.” Wikipedia. Web. 9 Oct. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hattie_McDaniel>.
“Hattie McDaniel – Biography.” IMDb. Web. 9 Oct. 2015. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0567408/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm>.
Jackson, Carlton. Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel. Lanham, MD: Madison, 1990. Print.
Image of Hattie on a postage stamp is from Ear Hustle 411.
Photo of Hattie holding her Academy Award is from afroNOIRE’s article, “Is Oscar Prejudiced? How Hattie McDaniels’ Story Still Haunts Us Today.”
Photo of Hattie McDaniel with Vivien Leigh from The Hollywood Reporter.