Like so many in this section of our annals, Hattie McDaniel may be described as an early pathbreaker who is now stigmatized for embodying a stereotypical role — in her case, the quintessential Mammy. The first African American to win an Oscar (for 1939’s Gone with the Wind), and the first African American woman to sing on the radio, for two decades she played nothing but slave women and house servants, all with a blustery, elemental character all very comforting to whites who wished to consider themselves the superior of blacks. On the other hand, it was the Depression, and these were the only parts she was offered — cut the woman some slack! Besides, she was great in them!
By all accounts she truly loved performing, starting out in a family act with her father and siblings (including Sam and Etta) in minstrel shows and all-black vaudeville circuits throughout the nineteen-teens. While we tend to think of her as a character actress, in her early years (and to a lesser degree later) she was also a singer, dancer and even a songwriter. Throughout the twenties she worked radio and on the Pantages, Little Orpheum and TOBA circuits, often billed as “The Black Sophie Tucker”). She joined her siblings in Hollywood in 1931 when the Depression caused other work in show business to dry up. She started getting cast almost right away. She’s in I’m No Angel (with Mae West) in 1933; Judge Priest (with Will Rogers and Stepin Fetchit) in 1935; Showboat (with Helen Morgan and many others) in 1936; and many more. She also played the role of Beulah on the Fibber McGee and Molly show, which later spun off into its own series, in which she starred. In 1950 it launched as a television series. Hattie collapsed after her first few episodes however. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, which killed her two years later.
To learn more about the history of vaudeville including the all-black circuits and performers like Hattie McDaniel, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.