Winning an Oscar is a major accomplishment for any actor, but for black actors, it’s often perceived as a key to unlock doors in Hollywood that are conveniently locked for people of color.
On Feb. 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first black person to win an Oscar, and breaking the color barrier in Hollywood came with its own price.
Born in Wichita, Kan. in 1895, McDaniel was the youngest of 13 children (four of her older siblings, were also actors). As a teenager, she hit the road for her older brother’s traveling talent show, and according to a 1947 essay in the Hollywood Reporter, heading to Milwaukee was her first step to Hollywood. In Milwaukee, McDaniel picked up a job as a “maid in the ladies room” of Sam Pick’s Suburban Inn where she took the stage one night “after midnight” when the manager “called for volunteer talent from among the help.” Hotel patrons encouraged McDaniel to “go to Hollywood and get into movies.”
She would eventually hitch a ride to Los Angeles with friends. Once on the West Coast, McDaniel worked as an extra on various films. As she recalled, it was her “incidental comedy roles” that helped earn her “first chance at a straight dramatic role” in Gone With the Wind.
Her road to Oscar gold began in 1939, when she debuted as “Mammy” in Victor Fleming-directed Gone With the Wind, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. The “Mammy” character had been familiar to McDaniel who, like many black actors of her time, was often confined to roles of servitude. The NAACP, and black press, lambasted Gone With the Wind for its stereotypical depictions of black characters, and use of the n-word. Eventually the derogatory term was cut from the film because McDaniel reportedly refused to utter the epithet.
The following year, at the 12th annual Academy Awards ceremony, held inside the Coconut Grove Restaurant at the segregated Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles, McDaniel made history. Despite being forced to sit in the back of the room at a separate table, she was grateful in her speech, calling the win “one of the happiest moments” of her life.
The Oscar was Hollywood’s “greatest seal of approval”, one that validated how far McDaniel had come in her career in less than a decade.
For the actress and singer, who was married three times and maybe a little too generous for her own good, making Oscar history by playing a servant, was hardly a celebratory cause to her detractors. McDaniel endured racism, criticism, and likely sexism, while appearing in hundreds of films both in credited and uncredited roles.
“My own people were especially happy,” McDaniel wrote in 1947 after winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. “They felt that in honoring me, Hollywood had honored the entire race. That was the way I wanted it. This was too big a moment for my personal back-slapping. I wanted this occasion to prove an inspiration to Negro youth for many years to come.”
It would be another 50 years before another black actress, Whoopi Goldberg, would win the same category, for playing a psychic in Ghost. In 2002, Halle Berry became the first, and only, black actress to earn the Best Actress Oscar, which she was awarded for her portrayal of Leticia Musgrove a recently bereaved single mother working as a waitress to support her young son. Like McDaniel before her, Berry was criticized for portraying ” a stereotype about black women and sexuality,” as Angela Bassett said in a 2002 interview of why she wouldn’t take the role.
In 2007, Jennifer Hudson earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Effie White, a talented singer with an alcohol problem, in Dreamgirls. Three years later, Mo’Nique (who thanked McDaniel in her speech) won in the same category for her polarizing performance of an abusive single mother in Precious. In 2012, Lupita Nyong’o’s breakout role as the enslaved Patsey in 12 Years A Slave added her to the small club of Oscar-winning black actresses.
Ironically, McDaniel was unapologetic about portraying servants on film. She famously stated that she would rather get paid to play a maid than be one. She also claimed to have persuaded directors to “omit” certain dialect from films, and according to McDaniel, they “readily agreed” to do so.
Although McDaniel addressed theories that she helped keep “the stereotype of the Negro servant” alive, she didn’t necessarily agree with that assertion. “I believe my critics think the public more naïve than it actually is,” she wrote referencing a conversation with Imitation of Life actress Fredi Washington about Aruther Treacher, a white actor who was known for portraying “English stereotypes” like butlers and manservants.
“Arthur Treacher is indelibly stamped as a Hollywood butler,” McDaniel noted. “But I am sure no one would go to his home and expect him to meet them at the door with a napkin across his arm.”
By the early 1950s, McDaniel had stopped appearing in films. She landed a new job initially making $1,000 per week when she replaced Ethel Waters in the network radio series, The Beulah Show. The series, however, which originally starred a white actress as Beulah Brown and expanded to television in 1951, couldn’t sidestep condemnation. One critic wrote that Beulah “defiles and desecrates colored people”, and the U.S. Army pulled the series from broadcasting in Asia over its depiction of black men as being lazy. However, author Carlton Jackson argues in the The Life of Hattie McDaniel that Beulah “diminished some of the stereotypical image of black subservience with which the NAACP had charged her.”
McDaniel was replaced on Beulah in 1952, after she became ill and unable to work while battling breast cancer. The actress succumbed to the disease later that year, at the age of 57. Unfortunately, she died virtually penniless. Her estate was worth less than $10,000 and her belongings, including her Oscar, were sold to pay off an $11,000 IRS debt.
She was buried at Rosedale Cemetery, the second option listed in her will after the then segregated Hollywood Cemetery, where the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Jayne Mansfield, Mildred Harris, and more actors were laid to rest. In spite of her Oscar-winning status, the former cemetery owner saw McDaniel as nothing more than a black body, and refused to bury her in the all-white cemetery. McDaniel’s corpse was transported to Rosedale where it remains to this day.
In 1999, Hollywood Cemetery’s new owner offered to have McDaniel’s remains moved to the cemetery, but the family declined. A commemorative monument was placed at the cemetery in her honor.
McDaniel received two posthumous stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but perhaps the most puzzling part of her Oscar story is the location of her actual award. One of McDaniel’s last wishes were to have her Oscar preserved in Howard University’s theater department, yet it hasn’t been seen in decades.
The exact whereabouts of her Academy Award remain unknown.