In the nightclub of a Los Angeles hotel, Hattie McDaniel takes to the stage. Clad in a turquoise dress and with white flowers cascading through her hair, she looks every inch the part as she accepts her Academy Award. But behind the scenes, segregation still divides the movie industry – and McDaniel’s moment in the spotlight is bittersweet.
McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895, in Wichita, a city in southern Kansas. Her parents, Henry and Susan, were both former slaves, and Henry had served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. As a young girl, McDaniel moved with her family to Colorado, and they eventually settled in Denver.
One of 13 siblings, McDaniel soon developed a talent for acting and singing. And when her brothers began performing a minstrel show, she decided to get involved. However, the performances were designed to mimic the white populace, and McDaniel often donned “white-face” to entertain her African American audience.