SeeHer Story airs every week on PEOPLE.com and @PeopleTV social handles

By Georgia Slater
July 31, 2020 05:00 AM
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Hattie McDaniel pushed boundaries for the Black community in film, becoming the first Black person to ever win an Academy Award.

The actress never let the color of her skin deter her from pursuing her career, which is why the team at SeeHer Story chose to look back on her groundbreaking life in this week's episode.

Katie Couric Media and PEOPLE partnered to create the second season of SeeHer Story, a weekly digital video series produced to celebrate various female trailblazers from the past 100 years to today.

McDaniel was born in 1893 in Wichita, Kansas, where she watched her formerly enslaved parents struggle to make ends meet following the Civil War.

After seeing her brothers find success in show business, McDaniel wanted to follow in their footsteps and began performing with them at just 10 years old.

“I loved every minute of it, the tent shows, the kerosene lights, the contagious enthusiasm of the small-town crowds," she once said of the experience.

At 16, McDaniel said goodbye to school and spent the next decade performing across the Midwest.

CBS via Getty

She landed her first major role in 1935, appearing alongside Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel.

In 1939, McDaniel was cast as Mammy, Scarlett O’Hara’s enslaved maid in Gone with the Wind, which became a career-defining role for the actress.

While the film received backlash for its romantic depiction of slavery and the Civil War, McDaniel constantly defended her role.

"I love Mammy. I understand her because my own grandmother worked on a plantation,” she explained at the time.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty

McDaniel went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that year, making her the first Black person to ever take home an Oscar.

"My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you, and God bless you," she said during her acceptance speech.

Despite her acclaim in film, the color of McDaniel's skin color continued to be a constant barrier.

The night she won the Academy Award, McDaniel wasn't even allowed into the theater until her category was announced, Queen Latifah shared in the clip above.

"Someone came outside and brought her into the auditorium. She wasn't even allowed to sit in there," she said.

CBS via Getty

McDaniel had a hard time breaking out of stereotypical Black roles, only being cast in films as the maid or the housekeeper.

Even on her own 1950 sitcom, Beulah, she starred as a housekeeper.

Off-screen, however, McDaniel continued to fight for equal rights.

Around the same time as the sitcom debuted, she sued her white neighbors who tried to evict her and other Black residents from their Los Angeles neighborhood. She eventually won the case.

In 1952, McDaniel died from breast cancer with one final wish: to be buried alongside her peers in the Hollywood Cemetery. Unfortunately, like many times before, McDaniel's request was denied solely because of the color of her skin.

SeeHer Story will be a regular feature in PEOPLE’s print edition, the weekday morning newsletter Wake-Up Call with Katie Couric and on PeopleTV’s entertainment show, PEOPLE Now

"SeeHer Story celebrates the important contributions of bold women from the past 100 years who have changed our country forever,” said Couric in a statement. “We hope recognizing them and telling their stories will not only give them their due but will also inspire the next generation of leaders.”

She added, “Together with Meredith and PEOPLE, I’m so excited to bring back a second season of stories of women whose names you may know — and put those whose achievements are not as well-known — front and center so we can celebrate them as well.”