July 1997

Nina Mae McKinney

Actress

Nina Mae McKinney

Nina Mae McKinney was one of the most “successful” African-American actresses of the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Nannie Mayme McKinney, her given name, was born in 1912 in Lancaster, South Carolina, which was then a rural town. Her parents moved to New York in search of better opportunities and left her to be raised by her great aunt, Carrie Sanders, who worked as a maid and a cook for Colonel and Mrs. Leroy Springs of Springs Industries, and lived in a small dwelling at the rear of their home. At a young age, McKinney’s duties were to deliver and collect parcels from the local post office. To entertain herself as she made the trips, she did stunts on her bicycle. These feats, which drew attention, were her initial entrance into acting. While in her teens, McKinney left the rural South and moved to New York to live with her parents. She soon gained work as a dancer in New York city night clubs and chose Nina Mae as her stage name. She later obtained a role in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds revue, which starred the famous tap dancer and actor Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. In 1929, King Vidor, Of MGM Studios, cast McKinney as Chick, a rather promiscuous young woman, in his film hallelujah. She was felt to be a natural actress. Her movements, and command of the required language, made Chick come alive. She performed all of her subsequent roles with the same zest and acting ability. The “McKinney” model was later studied and became the learning technique of other African-American actresses, such as Dorothy Dandridge. Hallelujah was the first sound film effort to depict African-American actresses, such as Dorothy Dandridge. Hallelujah was the first sound film effort to depict African-American life and reveal the nature and scope of African-American families. it became an American classic. McKinney’s success in Hallelujah did not generate leading roles for her in the American film industry. She was relegated to assuming routine black characters or to partaking in independently produced, low budget all black movies, as was the pattern for most of the outstanding African-American actors and actresses of the era. Despite her obvious talent, McKinney was virtually unknown among American theatre goers of the 1930’s. Black actors, as Donald Bogle so definitively researched in his study of the African-American film industry, were relegated to the of “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks.” McKinney acted in a few other films in the 1940’s. Her most notable role was in Pinky. McKinney was also a stage actress and performed at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Barred from opportunities and stardom in Hollywood, she soon departed the United States and took her great talents to Europe. This was not uncommon because minimal job opportunities and the racism and discrimination of the time result in many African-American artists becoming expatriates. In Greece, she was known as the Black Garbo. She performed all over Europe, singing in nightclubs and cafes in cities such as London, Budapest, Dublin and Paris. In England she starred with the great actor Paul Robeson in the film Sanders of the River. She returned to the United States, where for a while she performed in some all-Negro productions. Nina Mae McKinney, wonderfully gifted actress, who set the stage for others via her unique style, died in New York City in 1967.