Nannie Mayme McKinney, also known as “The Black Garbo”, was one of the first black actresses to appear on British television. She was also one of the first black film stars in the U.S.
Born in Lancaster, South Carolina in 1913, McKinney lived with her great aunt until she moved to Harlem to live with her mother and start her performance career. She started as a Harlem nightclub performer, then landed gigs on Broadway. A director named King Vidor took notice of her and insisted that she perform in his upcoming musical. With her new stage name of Nina McKinney, the young woman landed the role of Chick in “Hallelujah!” which was the first all-black sound musical. Her performance led to a five-year contract with MGM Studios.
During the time when only a few black actresses prevailed in Hollywood, McKinney was fed up with the search for roles and in the early1930’s, she left for Europe. She performed in Budapest, Dublin, London, and Paris – opposite Paul Robeson. McKinney appeared in “Congo Road” (1930), and “Sanders of the River” (1935). During wartime in Europe, McKinney returned to America, where she was only able to land roles in the films “Safe in Hell” (1931) and “Reckless” (1935). McKinney never appeared on the screen for either film. Her voice was, however, used in place of Jean Harlow’s in Reckless. She married Jimmy Monroe, a jazz musician, and the two toured the country.
McKinney and Monroe lived in Athens, Greece where she came to be known as “The Queen of Night Life.” Nina McKinney paved the way for actresses like Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne. Unfortunately, when she passed away in 1967, there was no press coverage or announcement that one of the pioneering black actresses in Hollywood had died. Her likeness is captured on a building wall in Lancaster, South Carolina as part of a “wall of fame” tribute.