|Hattie McDaniel, c. 1910. |
Courtesy Margaret Herrick Library
The antebellum racist roots of white minstrel shows ushering in blackface notwithstanding, African American minstrels were the hottest thing in the 19th and early 20th centuries, often showcased in vaudeville. It was one of the surest ways African Americans had to break out of a life of menial labor given rampant discrimination especially during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era and its aftermath, building on their roots ministering in black churches.
It’s where Hattie McDaniel, first African American Oscar winner, being featured in my book, Oasis III, got her start. As I write:
By 1908, Hattie began joining her siblings for out-of-town performances in J.M. Johnson’s Mighty Modern Minstrels and other such groups, which her straitlaced mother was none too happy about. (Hattie should aim no higher than being a maid, her mother believed.) Their earnings, though, helped the family survive…
… Hattie, then a high school sophomore, got her big break when, at age 15, she landed a part with the Red Devils, a minstrel show based in New York, now performing on the vaudeville circuit. When they came to town, they scooped her up, dubbing her “Denver’s Favorite Soubrette.”
She was on her way. “My oldest brother Otis, who wrote his own show and songs, persuaded my mother to let me go on the road with his company,” Hattie wrote some 38 years later. “I loved every minute of it, the tent shows, the kerosene lights, the contagious enthusiasm of the small-town crowds.”1
… Hattie was receiving great notices and was such a gifted performer that, soon afterwards, she decided to quit high school, resolving to make entertainment her life’s work…
Back in Denver, Hattie was wowing audiences… But, the pay was low and opportunities were limited for blacks, let alone for a black woman. Domestic work was always there for the taking as a way to earn a few honest dollars while continuing her theatrical quest.
[Then she got married to Howard J. Hickman] on January 19, 1911, beginning what was the happiest time of Hattie’s life.
Hattie McDaniel-Hickman reached a whole new level of artistry. Along with her now married sister Etta Goff, she formed what would soon be called The McDaniel Sisters Company and produced minstrel shows, starting with a benefit at the Mizpah Art Club… Free as a bird, she paraded before her audiences sporting wildly protruding cactus hair, dressed in an ill-fitting multicolored dress wearing shoes filled with corn and painted in the blackest of black face, making her bulging eyes look whiter than white.
She had learned from black entertainment pioneers such as Williams and Walker, and Aida Overton, Walker’s wife, who wrote, “In this age we are fighting the one problem—that is the color problem.”… [Then, her husband died of pneumonia.] … Utterly devastated, she retired from the stage for an appropriate period of mourning. At the very same time opportunities for black performers were withering, the stress of which may have contributed to Howard’s precipitous decline. White performers such as Al Jolson dominated minstrel shows in the waning days of vaudeville and very few black performers besides Bert Williams and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson were given theatrical billing. Hollywood, meanwhile, was outpacing and outshining vaudeville, especially with its blockbuster feature film The Birth of a Nation, which swept the country in 1915.
Black performers had made great strides, not only as phenomenal entertainers, but in advancing racial harmony through their rich artistry which would soon birth jazz and blues. Al Jolson essentially stole their thunder, no more poignantly than in “Mammy” in the finale of The Jazz Singer (1927), the first “talking picture.” The kind of song which Hattie McDaniel would have sung, as exemplified by Ethel Waters in “Stand by Me, Mammy.” But, the racism bred into American culture, as exemplified in The Birth of a Nation—to say nothing of the blackface mockery by the likes of E.P. Christy and Christy’s Minstrels, which Jolson himself mimicked in Camptown Races (1948)—would make for a complicated and long, hard slog—still ongoing.
Mary Claire Kendall is the author of “Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends.”
1 “I Have Never Apologized,” by Hattie McDaniel, The Hollywood Reporter, 1947.