Nina Mae McKinney

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Nannie Mayme McKinney

Also Known As: "Nina McKinney", "The Black Garbo"
Birthdate: (54)
Birthplace: Lancaster, SC, United States
Death: May 3, 1967 (54)
New York, NY, United States (heart attack)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Hal McKinney and Georgia McKinney

Occupation: African-American actress
Managed by: Kenneth Kwame Welsh, (C)
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Nina Mae McKinney

Nina Mae McKinney (June 13, 1912 – May 3, 1967) was an American actress. Dubbed "The Black Garbo",[1] she was one of the first African-American film stars and was one of the first African-Americans to appear on British television.

McKinney was born in 1912 in the small town of Lancaster, South Carolina. When her parents, Hal and Georgia moved to New York, they left her with her Aunt Carrie. Living with her Aunt Carrie, McKinney ran errands and learned to ride a bike. It was for this reason that her first public performances involved stunts on bikes. Her passion for acting was clear from the beginning, for she acted in schools plays in Lancaster, and she taught herself how to dance. She left school when she was only fifteen to pursue acting in New York, where she was reunited with her parents. Her first job was as a girl in a chorus line of the hit Broadway musical Blackbirds Of 1928. This show also starred famous singers/actors Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Adelaide Hall. Becoming one of the longest running and most successful shows of its genre on Broadway, this musical opened at the Liberty Theater on May 9, 1928.

This role consequently landed McKinney a leading role and launching her into stardom. When Hollywood film director King Vidor was looking for a star in his upcoming movie, Hallelujah!, he spotted McKinney right away from her spot in the chorus line in Blackbirds Of 1928.[2] He said, "Nina Mae McKinney was third from the right in the chorus. She was beautiful and talented and glowing with personality." And that’s what rocketed her into the world of acting and Hollywood.[3]

McKinney was arguably the first African American actress to hold a principal role in a mainstream film, 1929's Hallelujah. A film which consisted of an entirely African American cast. Her role was important because her physical features became forerunners to the desired physical features of many African American actresses who were cast as objects of male desire.[4]

Later, Vidor was nominated for Oscar for his directing of Hallelujah and McKinney was praised for her role. Even though she faced adversity from people making racist remarks about her, McKinney shined in the movie, playing the “feckless Chick” to perfection. When asked about her performance, Vidor told audiences “Nina was full of life, full of expression, and just a joy to work with. Someone like her inspires a director."[3]

After Hallelujah! McKinney signed a five year contract with MGM, however, the studio seemed reluctant to star her in feature films. Her most notable roles during this period were in films for other studios, including a leading role in Sanders of the River (1935), made in the UK, where she appears with Paul Robeson. After MGM cut almost all her scenes in Reckless (1935) she left Hollywood for Europe where she acted and danced, appearing mostly in theatrical shows and cabaret. She returned to the United States at the start of World War II where she married Jimmy Monroe, a jazz musician. After the war she moved to Athens, Greece and lived there until she returned to New York in 1960.

Time passed after McKinney's starring role, and work was hard to come by because not many movies were interracial, and Hollywood was a difficult place for African American actors, actresses, directors, writers, and producers. Especially for African American women, breaking out into a major role was hard because there weren’t many choices for roles a woman of color could play. Even though she had the looks, Hollywood was afraid to make her into a glamorized sex symbol like white actresses of the time. It was two years after Hallelujah that McKinney returned to the silver screen as a supporting actress in Safe in Hell, directed by William A. Wellman. In this movie, McKinney played the role of a waitress who befriends an escaped New Orleans hooker.[3]

Because of the prevalence of racism not only in the entertainment industry but also throughout the United States in general, many African American actors and actress escaped the United States for countries throughout Europe. It was here in Europe that McKinney received the nickname “Black Garbo,” because of her resemblance to the Greta Garbo.


Though she was not widely recognized during her lifetime for all of her work, she did receive recognition afterwards. A couple of years after her death, an African American film historian named Donald Bogle mentions McKinney in his book titled Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies And Bucks--An Interpretive History Of Blacks In American Films. He recognizes her for inspiring other actresses and passing on her techniques to them, he says, “her final contribution to the movies now lay in those she influenced."[6]

In 1978, McKinney received a posthumous award from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame for her lifetime achievement.[3]

The Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City replayed a clip of Nina Mae McKinney singing in Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932) in a combination of clips called "Vocal Projections: Jazz Divas in Film."[7]

A portrait of McKinney is displayed in her hometown of Lancaster, South Carolina at the courthouse’s "Wall of Fame."

Her death and funeral went unknown, Jet, Ebony, and Variety didn't even print an obituary. One newspaper printed something about "Nina Mae McKinney "ENTERTAINER" died at New York Metropolitan Hospital of a heart attack, funeral services is going to be in the little white church around the corner". Many people didn't even know where she was buried, or when she died. A great gifted talent, a sad way to be forgotten, but has not been forgotten in Lancaster, her hometown. Nina Mae McKinney's portrait is painted on a Lancaster wall across from the Courthouse, known as the "Wall of Fame," along with other famous Lancastrians, Pres. Andrew Jackson, Dr. J. Marion Sims, Col. Elliott White Springs and Gen. Charles Duke. (

See also

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Nina Mae McKinney's Timeline

June 13, 1912
Lancaster, SC, United States
May 3, 1967
Age 54
New York, NY, United States