It was the evening of February 29, 1940. The 12th Annual Academy Awards were scheduled to be held at the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the same facility where Robert Kennedy would be assassinated some 28 years later. But on this night, a different sort of history was made. Hattie McDaniel, the actress who starred as Mammy, the head slave at the fictional Southern plantation Tara in the Civil War epic “Gone with the Wind,” accepted an Oscar for supporting actress. In the process, she became the first African American performer to be so honored.
Yet despite the undeniable progress inherent in McDaniel’s triumph, that night 83 years ago was rife with racist and humiliating overtones for McDaniel, the daughter of two former slaves. It began months before with her being barred from the “Gone with the Wind” world premiere on December 15, 1939 at the Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. Star Clark Gable had threatened to boycott the event unless McDaniel were allowed to attend, but she convinced him to go, anyway, while she stayed away, a victim of Georgia’s strict segregation laws of the time.
“GWTW” producer David O. Selznick had also made the decision to omit the faces of all the Black actors on the posters advertising “Gone with the Wind” in the South.
Selznick had to call in a special favor just to allow McDaniel into the Ambassador Hotel for the Oscar ceremony, as it too had had a strict “No Blacks” policy. (It would be nearly 20 years before the state of California outlawed such racial discrimination.) Too, Selznick sat for the ceremony at a table that included stars Gable, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland. McDaniel, however, was forced to sit at a small table in the back of the ballroom set against a far wall, as inconspicuous as possible, sitting with her escort, Black actor Ferdinand Yoder and her White agent William Meiklejohn.
That night, the ceremony – without television to help move things along – dragged on and on. Attendees were reportedly beginning to nod off. By the time they got to supporting actor and actress (the last two awards of the night), it was nearly 1 a.m., some five hours after the show had started. Actress Fay Bainter made the presentation of the embossed plaque given to supporting winners at the time with the following introduction:
“I’m really especially happy to present this particular plaque. To me it seems to be more than just a plaque of gold. It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls and enables us to embrace the whole of America. An America we love. An America that almost alone in the world today recognizes and pays tribute to those who have given their best regardless of creed, race or color. It is with the knowledge that this entire nation will stand and salute the presentation of this plaque that I present the Academy Award for the best performance of an actress in a supporting role during 1939 to Hattie McDaniel.”
After Bainter announced McDaniel’s name as the winner, as described by gossip columnist Louella Parsons, “If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen’s taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor.”
Added columnist Harold Heffernan: “Spectators stifled their yawns and leaned forward expectantly, then gasped. There was silence for several moments, then the tumult got under way. The crowd was tendering an ovation never paralleled in Academy history.” Of course, that history was just 12 years old, but still.
When the ebullient McDaniel made it up to the stage from her table in a neighboring county amid thunderous applause, her 36-second acceptance was short but eminently gracious and laden with emotion: “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests, this is one of the happiest moments of my life. And I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards and for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble. And I will always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future.
“I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel. (Dabbing at her eyes, her voice cracks as she prepares to walk from the podium.) And may I say thank you and God bless you.”
But the beacon that McDaniel had held out her win as never gave back to her as it should have. In fact, it proved to be something of an albatross around her neck. It began that very night after the ceremony in what should have been the actresses’ proudest moment. She was sent plummeting back down to earth and shown her place when all of her white co-stars went to a “No Blacks” club, where McDaniel was also denied entry.
Moreover, after McDaniel’s win, the African American community excoriated her as a sellout who perpetuated servant stereotypes. Caucasians typecast her as a domestic who didn’t deserve the industry’s respect. The majority of her credits, both before and after “Gone with the Wind,” were portraying maids and cooks. Criticized for playing subservient roles, she shot back, “I would rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 being one.”
McDaniel’s personal life was no less turbulent. She married four times and was twice widowed and twice divorced, the last marriage ending in divorce in 1950. She never had any children before dying of breast cancer on October 26, 1952 at 59. But the indignities didn’t stop with her death. McDaniel had requested in her will that she be buried in Hollywood Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery) but was denied interment due to the color of her skin. She was buried instead at Rosedale Cemetery (now Rosedale Angelus Cemetery), the first Los Angeles cemetery open to all races.
In her will, McDaniel had also bequeathed her Oscar to Howard University, the historically Black college in Washington, D.C. whose students had honored her with a luncheon following her Academy Award victory. But the trophy went missing from Howard in the 1970s and has never been found.
Another nearly quarter-century would pass before a second African American won an Oscar: Sidney Poitier’s lead actor triumph for “Lilies of the Field” in 1964. In 2010, when Mo’Nique won the supporting actress Oscar for her role in “Precious,” she wore white gardenias in her hair, as McDaniel had 70 years before, and said in part, “I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to, so I would not have to.”
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