By Darlene Donloe
Hattie McDaniel is known for famously saying, “I’d rather play a maid than be one. I can be a maid for $7 a week, or I can play a maid for $700 a week.”
That was the feisty spirit of this unapologetically Black actress during a time when Black people were experiencing enormous racism, discrimination and prejudice.
A true trailblazer, McDaniel became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award on Feb. 29, 1940, when she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Mammy in the classic film, “Gone With the Wind.”
McDaniel, a gutsy Black woman, earned her stripes as a ground-breaking rebel in the 1940s, when she decided to move into a home in the historic West Adams District, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
The home continues to be a tourist attraction to this day.
The house, considered a mansion, has been described as having endless porches, a large backyard and a basement that McDaniel converted to an air-raid shelter. Reportedly, the house was decorated in light colors with French provincial ivory furniture, a grand piano and her collection of dolls and books on African-American art and history.
The home at 2203 S. Harvard Blvd., is still owned by the descendants of the family that bought it from McDaniel in 1952, according to Laura Meyers, a local historian who works with the West Adams Heritage Association.
“It’s a magnificent mansion,” Meyers said. “She was able to buy and enjoy a magnificent mansion. She threw gala parties. She had the ability to live large and famous as an African-American woman at that time and was able to have a statement residence. Remember, this was still Jim Crow America.”
An actress, singer-songwriter and comedian, McDaniel received enormous pushback from white residents when she bought the home.
“Many people didn’t want her there,” said Meyers, who attended USC and Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media Integrated Marketing Communications. “But Hattie wanted to live there, so she stayed and she fought for the right to live there. Yes, she was an actress, but a lot of people don’t know that she was also a civil rights activist.”
After eight white Sugar Hill residents sued to have the Black homeowners evicted from their homes, McDaniel won a civil rights case (Tolhurst v. Venerable) in 1945, known as the “Sugar Hill” case, which determined she had every right to live in the neighborhood.
The magistrate at the time, Judge Thurmond Clarke, ruled: “It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations and evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th Amendment of the federal Constitution. Judges have been avoiding the real issue too long. Certainly, there was no discrimination against the Negro race when it came to calling upon its members to die on the battlefields in defense of this country in the war just ended.”
Back in the day, McDaniel, who always dressed in the latest fashions, was known for hosting elaborate, celebrity-filled parties in her white and green Mediterranean mansion high atop the Los Angeles neighborhood known as Sugar Hill. Some of the greatest Black and white entertainers of the 20th century were known to frequent her soirees including Count Basie, Ethel Waters, Butterfly McQueen, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Agnes Moorehead, Esther Williams and Clark Gable.
“It’s culturally and historically significant,” said Meyers, who has been “engaged” in the history of West Adams for years. “A famous architect (Lester S. Moore) built it. It symbolizes her success at a time when it wasn’t easy to be successful if you were African American, or if you weren’t white.”
Although much of the home’s history is forgotten, it was once an area of grand homes and lively development.
Prior to her moving into the Sugar Hill area, the area was known as West Adams Heights. Prominent families lived in the Craftsman and Victorian mansions on South Harvard Boulevard.
Not surprisingly, the new white upper-class homeowners were required to sign racially restrictive covenants as part of the deed to their properties, promising to never sell to African Americans.
Those covenants were prevalent throughout Los Angeles during the early 20th century, a reaction to increasing Black mobility and income.
Covenants were the reason that Black life in Los Angeles centered around Central Avenue during the first half of the 20th century. It was one of the few places in Los Angeles that Black people were legally allowed to live.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the status of the area began to weaken.
When the Depression hit, many of the remaining West Adams Heights homeowners were forced to sell their homes. In need of cash, they were willing to sell to anyone who could pay, regardless of what their deeds said.
It was then that social leaders began to purchase West Adams Heights’ homes.
Soon thereafter, the area was retitled Sugar Hill, a tribute to the well-known neighborhood in Harlem.
McDaniel wasn’t the only high-profile Black actor living in the area at the time. Her friend and fellow actress, Ethel Waters lived across the street from her, and her other friend, Louise Beavers, (“Imitation of Life”), lived around the block on South Hobart.
During that time, Black entertainers not only revived West Adams, they tested racist pacts and laid the groundwork for the Fair Housing Act.
Though it would be two more decades until the Fair Housing Act formally barred housing discrimination based on race, the ruling was a gigantic step forward, and the Sugar Hill case had helped it happen.
In 1963, Sugar Hill was divided by the new Santa Monica (10) Freeway, essentially destroying dozens of mansions owned by African Americans.
By 1964, almost all the old families who had called Sugar Hill home had moved away.
Long before she hit it big in Hollywood, McDaniel, one of 13 children, grew up in poverty.
Her parents were both born into slavery. After leaving Wichita, Kansas, where she was born, the family moved to Denver. She grew up singing in the church choir and attended integrated schools. In 1914, McDaniel and her sister, Etta, formed the McDaniel Sisters Company, an all-female minstrel show.
In the 1920s, she became a blues singer. She recorded “Boo Hoo Blues” and “Dentist Chair Blues.” In between jobs, to make ends meet, McDaniel was a domestic worker and cook. It wasn’t long before McDaniel headed to Hollywood.
In 1937, McDaniel, who was married four times, was an actress playing sassy maids. When she was cast as “Mammy” in “Gone With the Wind,” McDaniel received harsh criticism from influential members of the Black community.
“Most people think of her as an actress that broke barriers,” said Meyers, who also runs the Living History Tour at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery where McDaniel is buried. “She was a Black woman who made a lot of money. She was criticized for some of the roles she chose.”
Most of McDaniel’s roles were as maids or mammies. Her films include “In This Our Life,” “The Great Lie,” “Show Boat,” “Judge Priest” and numerous others. She also appeared on several television shows including the popular “Beulah,” which was also on CBS radio.
“She certainly went on her own path,” said Meyers. “She had critics, but she said, ‘I’m picking the roles I want to pick.’ She told people to leave her alone. She worked hard to become who she became. She was defiant. With all that she went through, and all that she accomplished, it’s important for everyone to remember, it’s the woman who is important, not the house.”
McDaniel died Oct. 26, 1952, at the age of 59 and is buried at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery.
“Spotlight on L.A.” is a feature profiling little known places within the city. To propose a location for “Spotlight on L.A.,” send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.