The "Black Garbo," Nina McKinney
*Nina M. McKinney is remembered on this date, born in 1912. She was an African American actress and entertainer; she was one of the first Black actress' to make her name in American cinema.
From Lancaster, South Carolina, her grandmother raised Nina Mae McKinney near the estate of Col. LeRoy Sanders, where her family had worked for several generations. When she was twelve, her parents (living in New York) sent for her. Her career as an entertainer began at the age of sixteen when she performed in the chorus line of Lew Leslies Blackbirds. Her performance raised eyebrows and she was cast for a role in Hallelujah 1929, directed by King Vidor.
It was in this role that McKinney originated the stereotype “Black Temptress” that has haunted Black actresses to this very day. Critics described her characterization of Chick as “half woman, half child.” She was only seventeen years old at the time, young, beautiful, and on the strength of this performance McKinney was given a five-year contract with Metro-Golden-Mayer (MGM). It was here that she fell into the exploitation and oppression common to African-American women in Hollywood. McKinney was a leading lady in an industry that had no leading roles for a Black woman.
MGM did not know what to do with her and as a result she was cast in only two films, Safe in Hell 1931 and Reckless 1935; both of which were small parts and when her contract expired so did her career in Hollywood. She toured Europe in 1929 with pianist Garland Wilson. They performed in Paris and London. Billed as the “Black Garbo’” she was well received by audiences across the abroad. McKinney twice starred with Paul Robeson in Congo Road and the English film Sander of the River 1935. She appeared in many independent films in America including Pie Pie Blackbird with Eubie Blake.
In 1940 she toured the United States with her own jazz band after marrying musician Jimmy Monroe, her last film was Pinky 1949. Nina McKinney died in New York on May 3, 1967.
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
Today in American History