The Magazine of South Carolina

Lancaster's Celebrated Film Star

Nina Mae McKinney of Lancaster was a pioneering actress in the 1920s and '30s. Widely popular, she was a role model for such successors as Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge.

by Louise Pettus

In 1978, Nina Mae McKinney was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. She earned her place by having been the first black actress to perform in a sound movie. The movie was "Hallelujah," directed by MGM's famed King Vidor in 1929. It was not a great movie, but it did have what one critic called "crude power." And "Hallelujah" proved that Nina Mae had triple talents: She could act, sing and dance.

From where did Nina Mae's talent spring? People in her hometown, Lancaster, said she was "born a-dancin'." As a small child, she liked to drape sheets around herself and play the roles of ghosts and goblins.

She lived with her great-aunt, Carrie Sanders, in a cottage in the downtown back yard of Col. and Mrs. Leroy Springs. Aunt Carrie did housework for the Springses, and as soon as "Nannie Mayme" was old enough, she was employed as a maid by Mrs. Springs, who gave her a bicycle to ride to the post office to pick up the mail.

Nannie Mayme's first public performances were riding stunts, or "cutting capers," as amazed bystanders called it.

Next, she performed in plays at the black Lancaster Industrial School (founded by Springs), where she quickly learned the lines of the entire cast. But she didn't graduate, and at about age 13 headed for New York to stay with her mother, Georgia Crawford McKinney.

Nina Mae soon was performing in the nightclubs of Harlem. In 1928 she secured a role as a dancer in a Broadway musical, Lew Leslie's "Blackbirds." Her lively performance attracted the attention of Vidor, who took her to Hollywood.

Nina Mae's spectacular depiction of "Chick," a sultry 16-year-old "half-girl, half-woman" temptress, earned her a five-year contract with MGM. But MGM didn't know what to do with her. Hollywood could handle African-American character actresses such as Hattie McDaniels and Butterfly McQueen, but not African-American sexy leading ladies. Nina Mae loved Hollywood but was involved in only two films during the five years of her contract: "Safe in Hell" (1931) and "Reckless" (1935). In "Reckless," she didn't even appear onscreen; her voice was dubbed for Jean Harlow's songs.

It was a handicap that many black films were shown only on the black circuit and, especially in the segregated South, were never seen by white audiences.

In spite of limited exposure to the general public, Nina Mae became a role model for other African-American actresses. Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were two who patterned their work after that of Nina Mae. Her dance of seduction in "Hallelujah," the Swanee Shuffle, was imitated widely.

In 1935, Nina Mae took her talent abroad to Paris, London, Dublin and Budapest - where she was billed as the "Black Garbo." (In America they called her the "dusky Clara Bow.") She appeared in more films and plays; her career total, home and abroad, was 19. In one acclaimed film, "Sanders of the River," she sang haunting African chants with costar Paul Robeson.

War in Europe drove Nina Mae back to New York, where she married a jazz musician, Jimmy Monroe, put together a band and toured the country. On December 28, 1939, "America's No. 1 Sweetheart," as she was billed, performed with her band at the Township Auditorium in Columbia. It was a benefit for Jaggers Old Folks Home, described by the local paper as "a charitable institution for old Negro folks." A section of the auditorium was reserved for white spectators.

In the '50s and '60s, Nina Mae lived in Athens, Greece, where she was known as the "Queen of Night Life." She came back to New York shortly before her death at age 54 on May 3, 1967.

Near Lancaster's courthouse is a brick wall decorated with the likenesses of five Lancaster County natives, each of whom achieved great fame. The portraits, by artist Ralph Waldrop, include Andrew Jackson, Dr. J. Marion Sims, Col. Elliott White Springs, Nina Mae McKinney and Gen. Charles Duke.

Jackson, the "Hero of New Orleans," became president of the United States. Sims, the "Father of Gynecology," was a physician for Queen Victoria and Empress Eugenie. Springs, a World War I flying ace, author and philanthropist, was head of Springs Cotton Mills for 28 years. Duke, an astronaut, walked on the moon.

And Nina Mae, whose grandparents were slaves, used her multiple talents to reach heights no black woman ever had reached before.

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