The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Sunday night presented Howard University with a replacement Oscar for Hattie McDaniel’s 1940 best supporting actress award. McDaniel was the first Black person to win an Oscar for her supporting performance as Mammy in the 1939 classic “Gone with the Wind.”
McDaniel subsequently bequeathed her Oscar to the university before her death in 1952. The award was displayed in the school’s drama department up until the late 1960s when it mysteriously disappeared.
“For a young aspiring artist, a student, a would-be actress, being able to see that every day was an affirmation,” Phylicia Rashad, the dean of Howard’s Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, said of the award. Rashad, known for her role on The Cosby Show, accepted the replacement Oscar with Howard President Ben Vinson III and Kevin John Goff, McDaniel’s great-grandnephew.
“It was Hattie McDaniel’s intention that her Oscar should be placed here at Howard University in the College of Fine Arts in perpetuity,” Rashad said.
When McDaniel took the stage in a blue gown and gardenias in her hair at the 12th Academy Awards held at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel eight decades ago, she had been allowed in after a petition from her producer, David O. Selznick. Even when she entered, she was not allowed to join costars Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable on the Gone With the Winds table but was instead given a separate table at a far wall with her escort.
Though the award was a historic moment for her, the 46-year-old’s career took a not-too-impressive turn right after. Born in 1893 to two former slaves, McDaniel grew up in poverty and followed her brothers onto the stage, making fun of stereotypes by performing in whiteface.
In 1931, she moved to Los Angeles where she began uncredited film roles as maids and slaves; roles that were shunned by black actors at the time. Her assertiveness eventually landed her the role of Gone with the Wind’s Mammy. This became her most significant role at the time. But the NAACP condemned Gone With the Wind, and some black theatres were not willing to show it. McDaniel was also banned from attending the film’s Atlanta premiere.
Black audiences further accused her of perpetuating negative stereotypes, and white filmmakers cast her only in domestic-servant roles.
However, she made history again in 1947 when she became the first black actor to star in her own American radio program, The Beulah Show, replacing a white male actor. After some years, McDaniel was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed away at the age of 59.
It is documented that she made two requests in her will: for her body to be buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and for her Oscar to be given to Howard University. But the cemetery refused her burial due to her race, and she was rather buried at the nearby Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery.
By the early 1970s, her award went missing and is yet to be seen. Some have argued that the award was taken from the campus as part of the student unrest in the 1960s.