Hattie McDaniel Changed History by Becoming the First African American Oscar Winner

Actress Hattie Mc Daniel is shown with the statuette she received for her portrayal in
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Hattie McDaniel was truly an inspiration and trailblazer for many stars. In 1940, while being the only Black woman in attendance at the Oscars, she became the first African American to win an Academy Award. She was also segregated and had to sit in the back by herself, not among her Gone with the Wind co-stars. She won for her portrayal of Mammy in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. This was a time when the only roles for African Americans were servants but McDaniel shot back, “I’d rather play a maid in the movies than be one in real life.”

Before her death in 1952, she spoke about her feelings about receiving the award and shared, “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. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.”

Vivien Leigh (1913-1967), British actress, has her corset tightened by Hattie McDaniel (1892–1952), US actress, in a publicity still issued for the film, 'Gone with the Wind', 1939. The drama, directed by Victor Fleming (1889-1949), starred Leigh as 'Scarlett O'Hara', and McDaniel as 'Mammy'.

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McDaniel had always been destined to become a star. She started singing, dancing, and acting in high school as part of the group The Mighty Minstrels. She eventually dropped out of school to focus on her singing career and joined her brother’s troupe, then organized an all-women’s minstrel show. She got her first role in Hollywood as an extra in a musical in 1931 after appearing on the radio. Of course, she will be most remembered for her role in Gone with the Wind.

American actress Hattie McDaniel (1895 - 1952), at a CBS microphone, circa 1945. McDaniel won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Mammy in 'Gone With The Wind', making her the first African-American to win an Academy Award

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Although McDaniel received an Oscar for her role, she was actually banned from attending the movie premiere in Atlanta, along with any other Black actors. Producer David Selznick had to even petition for her to be able to attend the Oscars to receive her award. Unfortunately, at the time, Hollywood was not hiring many Black actors and she was forced to take odd jobs to make ends meet, even after winning such a highly-coveted award. In the late ’40s, she took over the starring role in CBS radio’s The Beulah Show. She started filming for the television version but sadly suffered from some health problems and ultimately died after a battle with cancer.

Portrait of American actress Hattie McDaniel (1892 - 1952) holding her Academy Award from the film 'Gone With the Wind,' Hollywood, California, 1940

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After her death, she was honored for her contributions to Hollywood and received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was also inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975. Years after her death, her Oscar mysteriously went missing. After she died, her award was donated to Howard University but twenty years later, it went missing. Eventually, the Academy sent a replacement last year.

In recent years, news broke that there may be a biopic developing on her life, based on the biography “Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood,” by Jill Watts. We hope to see that come to fruition!

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March 2018

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