Hattie McDaniel’s Missing Oscar Award Secret

On February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel designed her way from the again of the home to the on-phase podium at the 12th Academy Awards ceremony to accept the Most effective Supporting Actress Oscar for her effectiveness as Mammy in 1939’s Absent With the Wind—making her the very first Black person ever to gain an Oscar.

“I sincerely hope I shall often be a credit history to my race and to the movement photograph industry,” McDaniel reported in the course of her acceptance speech, which hinted at the controversy surrounding her gain. For 1, McDaniel wasn’t at first going to be allowed to show up at the ceremony Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick experienced to get in touch with in a favor to get the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove Nightclub to make an exception to its demanding “no Blacks” policy. And even when they did concur to bend the guidelines, it was less than the problem that McDaniel sit at a segregated desk in the again of the place, independent from her white co-stars.


The motion picture was controversial, far too. Quite a few civil rights advocates experienced opposed its generation from the get-go on the grounds that it would perpetuate racial stereotypes. The NAACP also acquired concerned and worked to continue to keep the novel’s most offensive depictions of Black individuals out of the script. In spite of all the function critics of the film’s generation did to either get the film shut down or soften its racist depictions, Long gone With the Wind nonetheless offered the Accomplice lead to as an honorable 1 and glorified the interactions in between plantation owners and their slaves—especially that of Scarlett O’Hara and her Black nursemaid, Mammy—and its racist overtones continue to draw prevalent criticism nowadays. In point, WarnerMedia just introduced this week that it would be briefly eliminating the movie from HBO Max’s library, with strategies to return it with “a dialogue of historical context and a denouncement” of its racist themes.

In small, McDaniel’s Oscar victory had a more contentious backstory than most, which makes the later on disappearance of the award alone look in particular suspicious.

Right before McDaniel died of breast cancer in October 1952, she specified in her will that her Oscar statuette ought to be donated to Howard College. However she hadn’t attended the establishment herself, it experienced been supportive of her career, and its college student thespian firm, the Howard Players, experienced honored her with a luncheon just a handful of months just after her Oscar earn.

Numerous men and women assumed that McDaniel’s Oscar was sent directly to Howard soon following her loss of life, but W. Burlette Carter’s 2012 write-up “Finding the Oscar” in the Howard Legislation Journal indicates that it designed a pair of stops along the way [PDF]. In 1954, a court docket purchase instructed executors to provide some of McDaniel’s belongings—including the Oscar award—at an estate sale, and a lady named Lucille Hamilton, whom McDaniel might have known from church, obtained a amount of objects. Although the Oscar was not expressly shown between Hamilton’s acquisitions, Carter thinks it could have accidentally fallen into the “miscellaneous” category, as McDaniel’s Oscar did not appear like the golden statuette we consider of when we hear the word “Oscar” now.

Until eventually 1943, Greatest Supporting Actors and Actresses had been just about every given a 5.5-inch-by-6-inch plaque attached to a incredibly small edition of the Oscar male. Which allows describe why McDaniel’s Oscar has tested so tricky to monitor above the years—and why it did not go straight to Howard, per McDaniel’s ask for: Folks failed to straight away figure out it as an Academy Award.

At some point, however, McDaniel’s award created it to Howard University—though how and when it arrived there just is also a section of the secret. The most preferred idea is that it last but not least arrived in Washington, D.C. in June of 1961. That’s when Howard College librarian Dorothy Porter recorded that actor and 1895 Howard graduate Leigh Whipper “donated the bronze shoes of the late Invoice ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, a plaque, and about 200 musical scores” to the drama department’s Channing Pollock Theatre Arts Collection. Looking at that college customers claimed viewing McDaniel’s Oscar with the bronze footwear in a glass exhibit situation in the drama department the extremely subsequent tumble, it appears very likely that the plaque was, in actuality, McDaniel’s (however how Whipper arrived to possess it remains a mystery).

Learners and employees don’t forget viewing McDaniel’s Oscar in its glass situation until eventually the late 1960s, when the civil rights movement gave rise to campus-broad protests and a pervasive feeling of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Sometime through or just after this period, the Oscar went missing.

A single main principle retains that McDaniel’s Oscar was stolen as a political statement. Some considered that her lauded portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind had perpetuated a detrimental and inaccurate stereotype. “I was way too radical to truly recognize the genius of Ms. McDaniel,” writer Pearl Cleage, who attended Howard in the 1960s, told the South Florida Periods. “I was conditioned to be indignant simply because she received the award for enjoying Mammy.” It has even prolonged been rumored that the award was tossed into the Potomac River, even though the claim is unsubstantiated.

Hattie McDaniel as the titular character in Beulah, 1951.
Hattie McDaniel as the titular character in Beulah, 1951. / CBS Radio, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Yet another theory suggests that the plaque was eliminated to stop these types of an act of riot from developing in the 1st area.

“I believe it was another person who moved it to a secure area, and then failed to explain to any one where they moved it and then considering that both retired or forgot about it,” Denise Randle, who arranged Howard’s artifact inventory in 1972, advised NPR.

There’s also a chance that the Oscar stayed set all over the turbulence of the late 1960s. In accordance to Carter’s investigation, a faculty member hired in August 1969 remembers seeing various plaques in the circumstance, and a member of the Howard Gamers maintains that the Oscar was however on show when she graduated in 1971.

All over the exact same time, a range of prolonged-time directors in Howard’s wonderful arts division passed absent or left their positions, and newcomers commenced to update the building’s decor to superior replicate the next technology of college students. It’s attainable that McDaniel’s Oscar was moved into storage through that time period and stays buried amongst greater, much more quickly identifiable merchandise to this working day.

The controversy encompassing McDaniel’s get, and her filmography at huge, has by no means died down. It is really approximated that she played at least 74 maids more than the study course of her occupation, and the NAACP took her to activity for perpetuating black stereotypes. Nonetheless McDaniel took it all in stride, and refused to apologize for her achievement. “I’d alternatively play a maid than be a person,” she was fond of declaring.

In 1947, not far too extensive after she won the Oscar, a letter McDaniel wrote defending her function was revealed in The Hollywood Reporter. In it, she stated that her Oscar win was “far too significant a instant for my personalized again-slapping. I desired this event to show an inspiration to Negro youth for a lot of several years to come.” She went on to say:

“I have under no circumstances apologized for the roles I enjoy. Many periods I have persuaded the directors to omit dialect from modern day photos. They easily agreed to the recommendation. I have been advised that I have saved alive the stereotype of the Negro servant in the minds of theatergoers. I feel my critics feel the general public additional naïve than it essentially is.”

The actual physical plaque could be dropped, but McDaniel’s Oscar is nonetheless a effective image of her trailblazing job, which served make space for aspiring Black actors in Hollywood. That’s in particular legitimate when you look at that it would be just about a quarter-century until one more Black artist was lauded for their do the job: In 1963, Sidney Poitier became the initial Black male to earn a competitive Oscar.

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