Black History Month: Hattie McDaniel

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WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) - Hattie McDaniel, award-winning actress and Wichita’s claim to fame, has inspired a generation of African-Americans from coast to coast to follow their dreams. Now, work is being done to ensure her legacy is not forgotten.

McDaniel was the first black Oscar winner, for her role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. It was a moment for the history books, and also for the next generation of black actors and actresses: a light of hope to follow their dreams.

Dr. Lona L. Reeves, KV, Education and Community Outreach Director with the Kansas African American Museum, says McDaniel’s roots are forever tied to Wichita. 

“When Hattie McDaniel started doing movies, there weren’t people like us in those movies.”

McDaniel spent the first few years of her childhood in Kansas, the daughter of former slaves hoping to make a better place for their family. 

“Coming here to Kansas to set up and have life the way they wanted to have it rather than what somebody else prescribed for them,” Reeves pointed out. 

This was a mindset that carried on to McDaniel, even after her family moved to Colorado. She made a name for herself as a writer and actress who did not shy away from the spotlight. 

In 1952, McDaniel passed away from breast cancer. She later earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Despite that honor, Kansas African American Museum Curator Paris Cunningham says it has been an upward battle to get McDaniel the recognition she deserves in Wichita. 

“Her impact here and her roots are not well-documented,” Cunningham said. “There have been attempts in the past... like there was a marker near her old home which was torn down, so now there are apartments. There was a marker there that was taken away.”

The only tangible reminder to Hattie McDaniel’s legacy in Wichita is a black bench along a bike trail.

Dozens of failed attempts to do more is causing the museum to take action to cement her story into Wichita’s history. For instance, they are planning to put up a sign in February to honor her.

“We’ve been working on it for about a year now because it came to our attention that it was not there now and something needed to be done,” Reeves said. 

Meanwhile, McDaniel’s family is overjoyed that after being known for decades as the woman who paved the way, she’s finally getting something back. 

“There’s a lot of different ways and a lot of different things that we can go to those boxes and check them off for Hattie and her memory, and I think the one with her marker down there is definitely one of them,” said Hattie McDaniel’s great-grandnephew Kevin John Goff..

Doctor Reeves says the new tribute would not have been possible without people like actress/singer Karla Burns, a Wichita native who has played McDaniel in various productions over the years.

“I play a lot of maids, a lot of maids, as did Hattie McDaniel, but I’ve always said to myself, the ‘M’ is for money. Hopefully, I’ll make a lot of it. The ‘A’ is for adoration, the ‘I’ is for inspiration and the ‘D’ is for dedication,” Burns said.

McDaniel’s award-winning contribution is something that will hopefully inspire future generations to reach for the stars and shine bright.

If you would like to learn more about Hattie McDaniel or make a donation to her memorial, you can visit the Kansas African American Museum website by going here. If you’d like to visit in person, they are located at 601 N. Water Street in Wichita.


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