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Celebrating Black Artists in Black History Month: Nina Mae McKinney (1909-1967)

Taylor Conrad

Nina Mae McKinney was the first black person to appear on British t.elevision. She was a singer, dancer and actress. She changed the perception of black actresses in America from maids and slaves to smart, sexy and seductive leading ladies.

She was born in Lancaster, South Carolina in 1912 and was raised on the estate of her grandmother’s boss. She showed early interest in performance and entertainment and was probably influenced by the all-black movie theaters in the south.

She moved to New York City when she was 13 to live with her mom. She started to perform at nightclubs in Harlem. In 1928 she was a dancer in the Broadway musical “Blackbirds.” In 1929, she was cast in the first all-black film, “Hallelujah.” Her performance grabbed the eye of an agent that brought her to Hollywood. She then signed a five-year contract with MGM.

However, she was only in two films in that five-year period, and in one of the films it was just her voice. The United States wasn’t ready for her. She moved her talent to Europe and was seen in Paris, London, Dublin and Budapest. “Sanders of the River,” was her most acclaimed movie of this time.

In 1933, she was the first black person on British television when she was cast in an experimental TV program.

The war in Europe brought McKinney back to New York City with 19 movies. She married jazz musician Jimmy Monroe. The two formed a band and toured the country.

During the 1950s and ‘60s McKinney lived in Athens, Greece. She was known as the “Queen of Nightlife.”

Shortly before her death in 1967, she moved back to New York City.

In 1978 she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame for revolutionizing the role of black women in film. She was especially amazing considering she had no formal training in performing arts.


Other movies featuring Nina Mae McKinney include:

 • Black Divas of Yesteryear (2004)

 • Pinky (1949)

 • Dark Waters (1944)

 • The Devil's Daughter (1939)