- Special Sections
- Public Notices
In downtown Lancaster, across from the historic courthouse, is the county’s Wall of Fame – five large portraits painted on the brick wall of the old Kimbrell’s Furniture building.
Somewhat at odds among the likes of President Andrew Jackson, groundbreaking gynecologist Dr. J. Marion Sims, WWI flying ace and textile giant Col. Elliott Springs and Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke, is the portrait of a young black lady in a white smock and red headscarf.
Portrayed for posterity’s sake shoulder to shoulder with a white man whose family she once served as a house girl, the young lady smiles as if to say, “Yes, that’s right. I belong here.” And indeed she does.
Her name is Nina Mae McKinney – “The Black Garbo” – a cultural icon. In the 1930s, she became Hollywood’s first black movie star; a world-renowned entertainer who died in near-obscurity but is credited with being a pioneer for black entertainers who came after her.
“I never got to meet her,” said Elaine McKinney of Lancaster, Nina Mae McKinney’s great-great niece. “All I remember hearing about her growing up was, of course, that she was in the movie ‘Hallelujah!’”
“From everything that I ever heard, she was really, really nice, very bubbly and had a fantastic personality,” she said. “Of course, we knew she was a star.”
Nina Mae McKinney was born in Lancaster on May 3, 1912, as Nannie Mayme McKinney, the daughter of Hal and Georgia, McKinney, who soon moved to New York City to establish a better life for their family.
The McKinney’s left their daughter in Lancaster in the care of her great-aunt, Carrie Sanders, a housekeeper and cook in Col. Leroy Spring’s home on West Gay Street.
The two were said to have lived in a small apartment in the back yard of the house that is now home to the Lancaster County Council of the Arts. The apartment would have been in the area of today’s Lancaster City Hall.
McKinney later went to work as a house girl for the Springs, and according to several sources, got her first taste of public adulation by performing stunts on a bicycle Lena Jones Springs gave her to use for running errands.
McKinney’s cousin, Mary Felder of Orangeburg, said based on what her grandmother told her, McKinney may have stood out on her bicycle for another reason as well.
“She was the only black girl in Lancaster at that time who had a bicycle,” Felder said.
Like most all black children in Lancaster then, McKinney attended the blacks-only Lancaster Industrial School established by Springs, where she is said to have excelled in school plays.
About the age of 13, McKinney moved to be with her parents in New York City. Drawn by the bright lights of Broadway, McKinney changed her name to Nina Mae – “Mae” being a favorite nickname among McKinney women to this day – and began appearing on stage, using the dancing talents biographer Stephen Bourne said she learned imitating stage and silent movie actors of the era.
McKinney’s big break came in 1928 when she was noticed by well-known early Hollywood producer King Vidor as a chorus member in a long-running Broadway show called “Blackbirds of 1928.”
“She was third from the right in the chorus,” Vidor famously wrote of seeing the 17-year-old McKinney for the first time. “She was beautiful, and talented and glowing with personality.”
Awestruck, Vidor cast McKinney in the leading role of “Chick” in the 1929 musical “Hallelujah!” – a role that would make her the first black starring actress in Hollywood’s first “talking” movie featuring an all black cast.
The critics loved her, and with the success of “Hallelujah!,” McKinney signed a five-year deal with MGM, becoming the first black actor, male or female, to sign a long-term contract with a major studio.
It didn’t take long before McKinney ran up against the racism that pervaded the country at the time: Despite McKinney’s integral role in “Hallelujah!’s” success, only the white Vidor was nominated for an Oscar.
MGM, afraid of public reaction if it included her in their mainstream stable of actors, only ended up casting McKinney in two movies over the course of their deal.
In 1935’s “Reckess,” McKinney never appeared in the final production, though her singing voice was dubbed in for white actress Jean Harlow’s songs, according to IMDb, the Internet Movie Database.
Like many black stars of the day, McKinney found most of her success in Europe where black entertainers were more accepted. It was there McKinney earned her famous nickname.
According to Bourne’s book, “The Black Garbo,” McKinney played cabarets and stages in Berlin, Cannes, Belgrade, Monte Carlo, Serbia and London, among others, making $1,000 a week – about $13,000 in today’s monetary standard.
After seeing McKinney perform in Athens, where she was known as “Queen of Night Life,” one American theatre critic, Richard Watts Jr., compared her to contemporary Josephine Baker, whom he called “a player definitely inferior to Miss MicKinney.”
“It seems that the Near East is the limbo for screen stars who are not active in Hollywood these days,” Bourne quotes Watts as writing in 1934. “Most of them are not triumphant and in the flesh as in the case of Nina Mae McKinney, whose exile from the cinema is the result entirely of narrow and intolerant racial matters.”
Soon after the humiliation of “Reckless,” McKinney returned to London, where she starred as the female lead of a seminal British film called “Sanders of the River.”
In 1937, she became the first black to appear on British television, according to the British Film Institute.
In all, McKinney appeared in 20 films, the best of which is widely considered to be her role as Rozelia in 1949’s “Pinky,” directed by the legendary Elia Kazan. The movie, which also featured legendary black actress Ethel Waters, was McKinney’s next to last film, and her last credited role.
Though she never regained the stardom that carried her from Lancaster to world-wide fame, McKinney reportedly continued to work throughout the 1950s, including performances with former Count Basie guitarist Jimmy McLin and a USO tour of Japan in 1954.
As is too often the case with trailblazing entertainers, McKinney’s life ended with a tragic slide into obscurity. In fact, very little is known about McKinney’s life between 1960 and 1967.
McKinney died of a heart attack on May 3, 1967 at the age of 54, her death ignored by national magazines such as Variety, Jet, Ebony and others that once hailed her talents, several sources said.
Bourne, whose work is considered the most extensive and trusted on McKinney’s life and legacy, says her short obituary in the Amsterdam News, the only paper that carried one, noted that her funeral was still attended by “hundreds of people who had known or who had heard of the famed star of stage, screen and radio.”
The saddest part, as Bourne said, is that her death certificate listed McKinney as “divorced,” and her occupation as a “domestic” for a “private family.”
While she lived in a time when the world was not yet ready for a black leading lady, McKinney was recognized in later years for her immense contributions to the world of black entertainers.
Film experts such as Donald Bogle attributed to McKinney the genesis of such iconic moves as “hands on the hips, the hard-as-nails brassy voice,” her groundbreaking talent leading to Hollywood’s first pursuit of a black actress.
In his book, Bourne agreed with Bogle’s assessment that McKinney’s legacy lay in her influence on those black actresses who came after her, such as Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, who would go on to tear down the Hollywood color barrier even more.
“With such attention (to Horne and Dandridge),” Bourne wrote, “it would be easy to assume that they were the first African American women to achieve stardom in Hollywood but, before Lena and Dorothy, there was Nina Mae.”
In 1978, McKinney was inducted into the Black Filmakers Hall of Fame and in 2008, her film “Hallelujah!” was added to the prestigious National Film registry.
McKinney’s fame continues to grow with an increasing number of fans, as shown by the number of Internet sites dedicated to her memory.
“I’m so happy to know that her legacy lives,” Elaine McKinney said.
“It just shows that being a pioneering woman, she refused to take no for an answer and was confident in her craft.”
Felder, who is originally from Lancaster, said she only met McKinney once, when she came home to Lancaster for a visit and stopped by Lancaster Training School. She said she remembers being so proud that McKinney recognized her as a cousin.
But then, Felder said, she wasn’t the only one in Lancaster who was proud of McKinney and her success.
“Believe it or not, everybody in Lancaster was proud. We were very proud of Nina Mae McKinney,” she said. “Just like anyone else who goes away and does good, we find ourselves rooting for our people.”
Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151