The rumors were rampant: Angry protestors mad about the characters actor Hattie McDaniel played, tossed her Oscar into the Potomac River during uprisings in the 60s. The plaque was lost in a basement at Howard University decades ago. But the reality is for years, no one has known exactly what happened to the Academy Award McDaniel bequeathed to the university upon her death in 1952. But on Sunday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally decided to replace the missing Oscar for McDaniel’s 1940 Best Supporting Actress award.
The Oscar — for McDaniel’s performance as “Mammy” in the 1939 epic “Gone With the Wind” — was the first awarded to a Black actor. For years, family members, fans and fellow actors have urged the Film Academy to replace the Oscar. Their request fell on deaf ears – until now.
Actress and Howard graduate Phylicia Rashad, the dean of the university’s Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts was a student when the Oscar was proudly on display at Howard. Speaking before a packed audience at Howard’s Cramton Auditorium Sunday, she recalled how heartbroken she was to learn that in the late 60s or 70s, the Oscar mysteriously vanished.
“For a young aspiring artist, a student, a would-be actress, being able to see that every day was an affirmation,” said Rashad, who is best known for her role as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.”
Rashad — who accepted the replacement Oscar along with Howard President Ben Vinson III and Kevin John Goff, McDaniel’s great-grandnephew — called the event not only a celebration of McDaniel’s life but a sign of “the power of intention.”
“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.
Jacqueline Stewart, director and president of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, said McDaniel’s career spread well beyond her most iconic film role.
The program included clips of McDaniel’s performances in “Gone With the Wind” and several other films, along with her acceptance speech at the 1940 Academy Awards ceremony.
The youngest of 13 children born to parents who had been enslaved, the actress worked both onstage and in films; was one of the first Black women to sing on the radio in the United States; and eventually was celebrated with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a U.S. Postal Service stamp.
McDaniel herself called her Oscar win “one of the happiest moments of my life,” in her acceptance speech.
“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,” she continued. “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel.”
The moment, however, was freighted with a mixed bag of emotions for both the actress and other Black Americans. As McDaniel had to get special permission to even attend the ceremony since the hotel hosting the awards had a strict ‘No Coloreds’ policy. Even once she was allowed in, McDaniel and her escort were forced to sit at the very back of the room, and not at the table with her Gone With the Wind co-stars.
The moment, however, brought on mixed emotions for both the actress and other Black Americans. McDaniel had to get special permission to even attend the ceremony since the hotel hosting the awards had a strict ‘No Coloreds’ policy. Even once she was allowed in, McDaniel and her escort were forced to sit at the very back of the room, and not at the table with her “Gone With the Wind” co-stars.
Black newspapers and political figures criticized McDaniel’s on-screen role for embracing a racial stereotype. The NAACP launched an all-out attack on McDaniel, that haunted her for years. Others attacked the film for presenting a romanticized picture of the antebellum South. The Black newspaper the Chicago Defender blasted the film as a “weapon of terror against Black America.” Blacks weren’t the only ones blasting McDaniel’s roles. Whites hated the sassiness of her characters. For McDaniel, finding her place in Hollywood was a constant struggle. Still, she persevered. And that fortitude was remembered on Sunday night.
Members of the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority were also in attendance, to pay homage to McDaniels, who was a founding member of the sorority’s Los Angeles chapter in 1939.
Defender Managing Editor ReShonda Tate, who is releasing a historical fiction book on Jan. 30, 2024 about the life of Hattie McDaniel called The Queen of Sugar Hill, attended the event. Visit www.ReshondaTate.com for more information and to pre-order the book.