Inside the complicated legacy of Hattie McDaniel, the first black Oscar winner
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When Hattie McDaniel took the stage at the 12th Academy Awards in 1940, she was the only black woman in the room. The 46-year-old actress from Gone With the Wind was the first African-American nominated for an Oscar, but with the ceremony held at the segregated Ambassador Hotel, producer David O. Selznick had to petition for McDaniel to be allowed into the hotel’s glitzy Cocoanut Grove nightclub. While costars Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable sat together, McDaniel, wearing a blue gown and gardenias in her hair, was seated at a separate table with her date. After her name was announced as Best Supporting Actress, she rose to receive the plaque given to all supporting-actor winners at the time, eschewed the speech Selznick had prepared for her, and delivered one she’d written with the help of black writer Ruby Berkley Goodwin, a close friend. “It has made me feel very, very humble, and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future,” she told the crowd. “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.”
It was a historic moment, but it would take nearly a quarter century before Oscar crowned another black actor, when Sidney Poitier won for 1963’s Lilies of the Field. McDaniel’s own career floundered. Black audiences criticized her for perpetuating negative stereotypes, and white filmmakers cast her only in domestic-servant roles. “I’d rather play a maid than be a maid,” she famously told her critics, but by the time of her death in 1952, she was a polarizing figure, forever associated with Mammy, Scarlett O’Hara’s feisty house slave.
In reality, McDaniel was far more complex. Born in 1893 to two former slaves (her father fought as a Union soldier in the Civil War), she grew up in poverty and followed her brothers onto the stage. Throughout the 1920s, she toured with vaudeville and minstrel shows, and poked fun at stereotypes by performing in whiteface. She moved to Los Angeles in 1931, where she traded her provocative stage persona for uncredited film roles as maids and slaves. While some black actors refused to play such characters (and were ostracized by the major studios for it), McDaniel pushed back in more subtle ways. Her domestics were more opinionated and defiant than most at the time. “She’s an artist who’s been resisting white domination with performance — up until she becomes involved in white show business,” says historian Jill Watts, author of the biography Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, which was recently optioned to be made into a film. “If you watch those performances, she’s straitjacketed [by the writing], but she’s trying to move her way out of that.”
It was that brashness that made McDaniel a long shot for the role of Mammy. Selznick led a nationwide search for an actress to play Gone with the Wind’s Mammy, and even Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a letter suggesting her personal maid for the part. But after a suggestion from Bing Crosby, Selznick picked McDaniel, marking the actress’s biggest role yet and a rare dramatic opportunity. Still, that brought a slew of new problems: The NAACP denounced Gone With the Wind, and some black theaters refused to show it. The actress was also banned from attending the film’s Atlanta premiere, although Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell later sent McDaniel a congratulatory telegram that read: “Wish you could have heard the applause.”
McDaniel never again reached that level of success, but she made history in 1947 when she became the first black actor to star in her own American radio program, The Beulah Show, replacing a white male actor. Within a few years, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and died at 59.
Her will made two requests: for her body to be buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and for her Oscar to be given to Howard University. The cemetery refused her burial because of her race, and she was instead laid to rest at the nearby Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery. (Many of her white friends and costars sent flowers to the funeral, including Clark Gable, but James Cagney was the only famous white actor to attend.)
As for her Oscar? An appraiser at the time deemed that the plaque had “no value,” and it was given to Howard University, where the drama department put it on display. By the early 1970s, however, the award had gone missing, and it hasn’t been seen since. Over the past four decades, rumors have swirled about its fate, from suggestions that it was stolen to theories that a group of students hurled it into the Potomac River to protest Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. In 2011, historian W. Burlette Carter published the results of her year-and-a-half-long search for the plaque, ruling out the more outlandish theories and suggesting that ultimately, the Oscar was just put into storage and never recovered. It might be in a forgotten archive at Howard, or it could’ve been moved to another location, where because of its plaque format, people might not recognize it for what it is. “We hold the hope that we’ll find it someday,” Carter says. “Not so much because of Hattie McDaniel, but because the Oscar really represents black America overall. It represents the experience of being shut out for such a long time.”