McKinney, Nina Mae

ca. 1912–May 3, 1967

In 1929 McKinney toured Europe as a cabaret performer, singing in major nightclubs in Paris and London

Actress, dancer. McKinney was born Nannie Mayme McKinney in Lancaster. Her parents moved to New York City and left McKinney with her great aunt, Carrie Sanders, who worked as a maid and cook for Colonel Leroy Springs of Springs Industries. When McKinney was twelve, her parents sent for her and she went to live in New York. Four years later she began her entertainment career. Sixteen, sexy, and extraordinarily good-looking, she performed as a chorus girl in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds revue in 1928 and was subsequently spotted in the production.

In 1929 McKinney achieved national notoriety by appearing as “Chick,” the leading lady in one of Hollywood’s first all-black motion pictures, Hallelujah. It was the first talking picture produced by King Vidor for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). The film revolved around a country fellow who momentarily fell under the charms of McKinney. Some claimed that McKinney, as “Chick,” originated the stereotypical roles of the “Black Temptress” and became the first tragic mulatto in talking pictures, the first light-skinned leading lady, and the first recognized black actress of the silver screen. Most reviewers, including those working for black newspapers, gave favorable critiques to the production. Even W. E. B. Du Bois, known for his frequently scathing commentary, wrote, “beautifully staged under severe limitations . . . a sense of real life without the exaggerated farce and horseplay . . . marks Hallelujah as epoch-making.” Some maligned the production, however, as “reeking with prejudice” and filled with “insulting niggerisms.” Fortunately, almost everyone seemed to like Nina Mae McKinney. On the strength of her performance, she signed a five-year contract with MGM. But working in an industry that had no lead roles for African American women, McKinney found that her time at MGM was generally unrewarding.

In 1929 McKinney toured Europe as a cabaret performer, singing in major nightclubs in Paris and London. Dubbed the “Black Garbo” by Richard Watts, Jr., in the New York Post, she was embraced by European audiences. She later starred with Paul Robeson in the play Congo Road and the English film Sanders of the River (1935). She appeared in several independent films, including Pie Pie Blackbirds with Eubie Blake, and then returned to Europe in 1932. By the 1930s McKinney was a guest on network radio programs, but her movie career had stalled. She had been cast in small parts in only two movies, Safe in Hell (1931) and Reckless (1935). Due to discrimination in the industry, McKinney, like other black actors, did not gain steady film work. When her contract with MGM ended, so did her Hollywood career.

In 1940 McKinney returned to the United States and married the musician Jimmy Monroe. She toured the country with her own band and landed roles in some all-black films. Her last starring film role was in Pinky, which was released in 1949 and involved the story of an interracial relationship. McKinney died in New York City on May 3, 1967. She was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978.

Bogle, Donald. Brown Sugar. New York: Da Capo, 1980.

–––. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film. 4th ed. New York: Continuum, 2001.

Pettus, Louise. “Lancaster’s Celebrated Film Star.” Sandlapper 7 (spring 1996): 62–63.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title McKinney, Nina Mae
  • Coverage ca. 1912–May 3, 1967
  • Author
  • Keywords Actress, dancer, achieved national notoriety by appearing as “Chick,” the leading lady in one of Hollywood’s first all-black motion pictures, Hallelujah, originated the stereotypical roles of the “Black Temptress”, “Black Garbo”, inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date May 10, 2021
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 20, 2016
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