Seventy-five years ago, Hattie McDaniel made history as the first African American to win an Oscar. From humble beginnings, McDaniel was a born entertainer and her role as “Mammy” in 1939’s ‘Gone With The Wind’ solidified her as an enduring cinema icon.
Gone With The Wind & Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Because of Jim Crow laws in the South, Hattie McDaniel and the other black actors in the cast of Gone With The Wind were excluded from attending the film’s premiere in Atlanta (despite the best efforts of producer David O. Selznick and star Clark Gable to change city officials’ minds). In a strangely ironic twist of history, a 10-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., performed in an Ebenezer Baptist Church choir dressed up as a slave in front of a mock Tara plantation leading up to the premiere. Almost three decades later, King would go on to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his fight for black equality.
More Groundbreaking Moments for McDaniel
Hattie McDaniel took some heat during her career for perpetuating the black maid stereotype. In addition to her groundbreaking Oscar win as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, McDaniel also achieved another first: she was the first black actress to star on her own radio show, playing funny housemaid Beulah, which would also be the name of the 1950s television spinoff. Although McDaniel eventually replaced Ethel Waters as Beulah on TV, she was soon forced to leave after discovering she had advanced breast cancer in 1952. It wouldn’t be until 1968’s Julia that an African-American woman would reappear in a sitcom and not play a maid.
Discrimination followed Hattie McDaniel to her grave. She had wanted to be buried with fellow actors and actresses in Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, but at the time of her death in 1952, most cemeteries were segregated. McDaniel ended up at Rosedale cemetery (now Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery). It was the first cemetery in Los Angeles to allow all races and creeds. Years later under new ownership, a plot was offered to McDaniel at Hollywood Memorial, but her family opted to keep her where she lay.
Has Anyone Seen Hattie McDaniel’s Missing Oscar?
McDaniel bequeathed her historic Oscar to Howard University. It was on display in the college for 20 years but went missing in the early 1970s. The award, now estimated to be worth millions, hasn’t turned up yet… Below is an interesting story about McDaniel’s award which was featured on NPR:
Bonus: Here is Hattie McDaniel’s poignant speech as she accepts her Academy Award: