Did you know Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award? Hattie won the award in 1940 for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.”
Excepts from The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On a February afternoon in 1940, Hattie McDaniel — then one of the biggest African-American movie stars in the world — marched into the Culver City offices of producer David O. Selznick and placed a stack of Gone With the Wind reviews on his desk. The Civil War epic, released two months earlier, had become an instant cultural sensation, and McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy — the head slave at Tara, the film’s fictional Southern plantation — was being singled out by both white and African-American critics as extraordinary. The Los Angeles Times even praised her work as “worthy of Academy supporting awards.” Selznick took the hint and submitted the 44-year-old for a nomination in the best supporting actress category, along with her co-star, Olivia de Havilland, contributing to the film’s record-setting 13 noms.
The 12th Academy Awards were held at the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel. McDaniel arrived in a rhinestone-studded turquoise gown with white gardenias in her hair. McDaniel then was escorted, not to the Gone With the Wind table — where Selznick sat with de Havilland and his two Oscar-nominated leads, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable — but to a small table set against a far wall, where she took a seat with her escort, F.P. Yober, and her white agent, William Meiklejohn. With the hotel’s strict no-blacks policy, Selznick had to call in a special favor just to have McDaniel allowed into the building (it was officially integrated by 1959, when the Unruh Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination in California).
But Hollywood’s highest honor couldn’t stave off the indignities that greeted McDaniel at every turn. White Hollywood pigeonholed her as the sassy Mammy archetype, with 74 confirmable domestic roles out of the IMDb list of 94. The NAACP disowned her for perpetuating negative stereotypes (“I’d rather play a maid than be a maid,” was her go-to response).
In her final years, McDaniel found success on the radio, taking over in 1947 from Bob Corley — a white voice actor who mimicked an African-American woman — as the title character in Beulah, a hit comedy series about a live-in maid. It was the first time an African-American woman starred in a radio show, earning McDaniel $1,000 a week. She was cast in the TV version of Beulah in 1951 but shot only six episodes before falling ill. She died Oct. 26, 1952, of breast cancer. She was 57.
Even after death, her Oscar, which she left to Howard University, was deemed valueless by appraisers and later went missing from the school — and has remained so for more than 40 years. Her final wish — to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery — was denied because of the color of her skin.