Hattie McDaniel part 3

This is my final installment in a mini-biography on American film legend Hattie McDaniel. To read prior entries, click part one or part two.

In 1942, Hattie McDaniel became one of the first black Americans to own a home in the upscale West Adams Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, also known as the Sugar Hill district. She bought a white two-story home with four bedrooms, a large living room, dining room, drawing room, den, butler’s pantry, kitchen, service porch, and library, Restrictive covenants, which forbid homes being sold to “non-Caucasians”, had been in place since the neighborhood was first developed, beginning in 1902.

Many of the original white home owners of West Adams Heights had fallen on hard times during the Great Depression and there were few other white people to sell their homes to. Some houses sat with “For Sale” signs in their yards for two or three years. At the same time a rising middle class of black professionals were moving to the area and eager to buy the slightly run-down mansions for above market value. Eventually the white home owners began selling to black people and families, who, as a rule, spent a good deal of money on home improvements and property improvements, actually driving up the property values of the homes of their white neighbors.

However, racism was strong and equal opportunity housing laws had not been written yet. A large collection of white West Adams Heights home owners sued to have the government enforce their racial restrictive covenants and make the black home owners go.

Hattie McDaniel may have never kicked up a fuss about what roles she got to play in film, but she was not about to let someone take her home from her. Hattie organized some 250 of her minority neighbors and secured the legal services of a local attorney, Loren Miller (who later went on to win the 1948 federal Supreme Court case deciding the legality of restrictive covenants, Shelley v. Kraemer.)

Hattie and her neighbors won their legal battle at the end of 1945. The California Supreme Court Justice who was to decide on the matter, Thurmond Clarke, visited Hattie’s neighborhood. He saw beautiful homes lovingly restored, perched on manicured lawns. The next morning he threw the case out, 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.”

Hattie lived out the remainder of her life in her West Adams Heights seventeen-room home and the neighborhood soon became home to more affluent and successful black professionals. Each year Hattie held a huge Hollywood gala in her home, which her Gone with the Wind and China Seas costar Clark Gable always attended.

Also during the 1940s, Hattie McDaniel was appointed to Chair the “Negro division” of the Hollywood Victory Committee, an organization which provided entertainment to troops stationed at military bases in California. The U.S. military was racially segregated and Hattie was responsible for providing entertainment to the all-black troops. She persuaded several of her friends and contemporary performers to donate their time, including Lena Horne and Ethel Waters. Hattie also performed for United Service Organization (USO) shows and war bond rallies. Hattie was notoriously generous throughout her life and died with a very modest estate of only about $10,000.

Hattie’s romantic life was troubled. She was married four times. Her first husband died within the year she married him and she divorced the other three. Hattie was delighted to discover she was pregnant in 1945, but her hopes were dashed when her doctor informed her she’d suffered a false pregnancy. She divorced her third husband soon after and never had children. Her fourth marriage was very unhappy. During court testimony for the divorce, Hattie broke down in tears as she described the emotional abuse her husband had inflicted on her, including interfering with her work on the Beulahradio show.

A quote on her cenotaph reads, “Aunt Hattie, you are a credit to your craft, your race and your family” referencing her 1939 Oscar acceptance speech where Hattie said she hoped she would “always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.”

Hattie died at age 57 from breast cancer, in 1952. She stated in her will that she wanted to be buried at the Hollywood Cemetery, but they refused to bury the body of a black woman in one of their plots. Hattie was buried at her second choice location, the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery. 1999 the Hollywood Cemetery came under new ownership and a new name, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The new owner Tyler Cassity learned of Hattie’s final wishes and approached her family to offer to have her moved to his cemetery. The family decided to leave her grave undisturbed though, so Cassity had a pink marble monument for Hattie McDaniel erected on the grounds of his cemetery instead.

I hope you enjoyed learning about Hattie McDaniel as much as I did. More personal posts on a wide variety of other topics coming soon.

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