Hattie McDaniel is the first Black person to win an Academy Award, which she earned in 1940 for her work in Gone With The Wind. And in an ugly reminder of how far civil rights in America had not progressed, McDaniel a) could not attend the premiere of the movie, because it was at a whites-only hotel, and b) was only barely allowed at the Oscars, for the same reason. The Ambassador Hotel begrudgingly allowed her to attend as a favor to producer David O. Selznick, but only if she sat at a segregated table off to the side. When she won, she broke a barrier that even that very night had kept her away from her co-stars, and very nearly out of the building altogether.
McDaniel looked resplendent. Her gown is turquoise, and she’s wearing gardenias — a combination that was consciously emulated by Mo’Nique when she won in 2010:
In her speech, Mo’Nique mentioned McDaniel, thanking her “for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to.” The Hollywood Reporter did a piece about Hattie’s legacy which credited Mo’Nique’s speech with renewing interest in the whereabouts of Hattie’s Oscar, which she bequeathed to Howard University, but which had thereafter disappeared. It further notes that the Oscar did not uncomplicate her life and career; McDaniel reportedly struggled both with being pigeonholed in Mammy-like roles, and with scrutiny for accepting those same roles. Segregation chased her to the last: She hoped to be buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, but it did not allow Black people at the time of her death in 1952. Rather than disinter and rebury her remains, her sister’s grandson Edgar Goff petitioned for a memorial to be placed there, which was granted in 1999.
Now, sixty-one years after Hattie won that landmark trophy at the 41st Oscars, Viola Davis just became the most-nominated Black actress with four Oscar nods (and hopefully it won’t be long before the gulf between that 4 and Meryl’s 21 is further closed), and may take home another statuette on Sunday. We are currently at the 93rd Academy Awards. In the interim, only one Black actress — Halle Berry — has won in the lead category, against 14 nominations (two are pending, the other being Andra Day). It would be another 51 years before a Black woman won in Best Supporting Actress (Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost); there have been eight total winners in that category against 24 nominations. And that’s just the women. Like McDaniel’s life itself, it shows that even breaking one massive barrier hasn’t been enough to make meaningful change. This photo is a stark reminder: Hattie, glowing and dignified, making history — before being ushered back to her segregated table.
After a yearlong investigation in 2011, McDaniel’s Oscar is still missing.