February is Black History Month. As I am typing this the Oscars are being presented. That got me thinking about Hattie McDaniel, who was the first Black to attend the Oscars and who had to sit in the rear of the auditorium during the ceremony.
Ethel Waters originated the role of Beulah for television, but left the series in 1951. She was replaced by Hattie McDaniel,who had played the role on radio since 1947. McDaniel, however, filmed only six episodes before falling ill. Those six episodes were shelved until McDaniel would be able to return to the show; in the meantime, Louise Beavers took over the role. The McDaniel episodes were finally showed in 1952, at the end of the show's second season. By that time, McDaniel had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Beavers continued in the role for the third and final season.
Beulah was often criticized for promoting stereotypical racism, much the same as Amos and Andy was. (Interestingly, the parts of Beulah, Amos, and Andy were originated by whites on radio.) It wasn't until 1968 and Diahann Carroll's Julia that a "non-stereotypical" Black played the lead on a weekly series Carroll's role, however, was that of a bland "white Negro." Still this was an important and deliberate step by creator Hal Kantor, who had written radio episodes for Beulah in the 1940s. Leslie Uggams, who had played Ethel Waters' young niece in Beulah, created little controversy when she became a regular on Sing Along with Mitch in 1961, seven years before the creation of Julia.
Looking back from 2012, it is sometimes difficult to realize how much American culture has changed in sixty short years. We still have a long way to go but the journey will be worth it.
So, from 1952, here's Hattie in two episodes in her ground-breaking television series, Beulah: