The Mystery—and Controversy—Surrounding Hattie McDaniel’s Missing Oscar

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind (1939).
Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind (1939).
MGM Studios

On February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel made her way from the back of the room to the on-stage podium at the 12th Academy Awards ceremony to accept the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Mammy in 1939’s Gone With the Wind—making her the first Black person ever to win an Oscar.

“I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry,” McDaniel said during her acceptance speech, which hinted at the controversy surrounding her win. For one, McDaniel wasn't originally going to be allowed to attend the ceremony; Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick had to call in a favor to get the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove Nightclub to make an exception to its strict “no Blacks” policy. And even when they did agree to bend the rules, it was under the condition that McDaniel sit at a segregated table in the back of the room, separate from her white co-stars.

The movie was controversial, too. Many civil rights advocates had opposed its production from the get-go on the grounds that it would perpetuate racial stereotypes. The NAACP also got involved and worked to keep the novel’s most offensive depictions of Black people out of the script. Despite all the work critics of the film's production did to either get the movie shut down or soften its racist depictions, Gone With the Wind still presented the Confederate cause as an honorable one and glorified the relationships between plantation owners and their slaves—especially that of Scarlett O’Hara and her Black nursemaid, Mammy—and its racist overtones continue to draw widespread criticism today. In fact, WarnerMedia just announced this week that it would be temporarily removing the film from HBO Max's library, with plans to return it with “a discussion of historical context and a denouncement” of its racist themes.

In short, McDaniel’s Oscar victory had a more contentious backstory than most, which makes the later disappearance of the award itself seem especially suspicious.

The Long Road to Howard University

Before McDaniel died of breast cancer in October 1952, she specified in her will that her Oscar statuette should be donated to Howard University. Though she hadn’t attended the institution herself, it had been supportive of her career, and its student thespian organization, the Howard Players, had honored her with a luncheon just a few months after her Oscar win.

Many people assumed that McDaniel’s Oscar was sent directly to Howard soon after her death, but W. Burlette Carter’s 2012 article “Finding the Oscar” in the Howard Law Journal suggests that it made a couple of stops along the way [PDF]. In 1954, a court order instructed executors to sell some of McDaniel’s belongings—including the Oscar award—at an estate sale, and a woman named Lucille Hamilton, whom McDaniel may have known from church, purchased a number of items. Though the Oscar wasn’t expressly listed among Hamilton’s acquisitions, Carter thinks it could have accidentally fallen into the “miscellaneous” category, as McDaniel's Oscar did not look like the golden statuette we think of when we hear the word "Oscar" today.

Until 1943, Best Supporting Actors and Actresses were each given a 5.5-inch-by-6-inch plaque attached to a very small version of the Oscar man. Which helps explain why McDaniel’s Oscar has proven so difficult to track over the years—and why it didn't go straight to Howard, per McDaniel's request: People didn't immediately recognize it as an Academy Award.

Eventually, however, McDaniel's award made it to Howard University—though how and when it arrived there exactly is also a part of the mystery. The most popular theory is that it finally arrived in Washington, D.C. in June of 1961. That's when Howard University librarian Dorothy Porter recorded that actor and 1895 Howard graduate Leigh Whipper “donated the bronze shoes of the late Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, a plaque, and about 200 musical scores” to the drama department’s Channing Pollock Theatre Arts Collection. Considering that faculty members reported seeing McDaniel’s Oscar with the bronze shoes in a glass display case in the drama department the very next fall, it seems likely that the plaque was, in fact, McDaniel’s (though how Whipper came to possess it remains a mystery).

Students and staff remember seeing McDaniel’s Oscar in its glass case until the late 1960s, when the civil rights movement gave rise to campus-wide protests and a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Sometime during or after this period, the Oscar went missing.

Have You Seen This Oscar?

One leading theory holds that McDaniel's Oscar was stolen as a political statement. Some believed that her lauded portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind had perpetuated a damaging and inaccurate stereotype. “I was too radical to truly appreciate the genius of Ms. McDaniel,” author Pearl Cleage, who attended Howard in the 1960s, told the South Florida Times. “I was conditioned to be angry because she won the award for playing Mammy.” It has even long been rumored that the award was tossed into the Potomac River, though the claim is unsubstantiated.

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

Another theory suggests that the plaque was removed to prevent such an act of rebellion from occurring in the first place.

“I think it was someone who moved it to a safe place, and then didn't tell anyone where they moved it and then since either retired or forgot about it," Denise Randle, who organized Howard’s artifact inventory in 1972, told NPR.

There’s also a chance that the Oscar stayed put throughout the turbulence of the late 1960s. According to Carter’s investigation, a faculty member hired in August 1969 remembers seeing several plaques in the case, and a member of the Howard Players maintains that the Oscar was still on display when she graduated in 1971.

Around the same time, a number of long-time administrators in Howard’s fine arts department passed away or left their positions, and newcomers began to update the building’s decor to better reflect the next generation of students. It’s possible that McDaniel’s Oscar was moved into storage during that period and remains buried among larger, more easily identifiable items to this day.

Eighty Years Later, the Controversy Continues

The controversy surrounding McDaniel's win, and her filmography at large, has never died down. It's estimated that she played at least 74 maids over the course of her career, and the NAACP took her to task for perpetuating black stereotypes. Yet McDaniel took it all in stride, and refused to apologize for her success. "I’d rather play a maid than be one," she was fond of saying.

In 1947, not too long after she won the Oscar, a letter McDaniel wrote defending her work was published in The Hollywood Reporter. In it, she stated that her Oscar win 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.” She went on to say:

"I have never apologized for the roles I play. Several times I have persuaded the directors to omit dialect from modern pictures. They readily agreed to the suggestion. I have been told that I have kept alive the stereotype of the Negro servant in the minds of theatergoers. I believe my critics think the public more naïve than it actually is.”

The physical plaque may be lost, but McDaniel’s Oscar is still a powerful symbol of her trailblazing career, which helped make room for aspiring Black actors in Hollywood. That's especially true when you consider that it would be almost a quarter-century until another Black artist was lauded for their work: In 1963, Sidney Poitier became the first Black man to win a competitive Oscar.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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America’s Most Popular Horror Movie Villains, Mapped

FrontierBundles.com
FrontierBundles.com

No matter how you feel about scary movies, it's hard to avoid them around Halloween. This is the time of year when the faces of cinema's classic horror villains seem to pop up in every store window and television set you see. Depending on where you live, certain horror icons may be especially hard to ignore. Check out the map below to find out the most popular scary movie villain in your state.

To make the map, FrontierBundles.com chose 15 classic horror movie antagonists and looked at regional Google Trends data for each name from the past year. Frankenstein's Monster from 1931's Frankenstein dominates most of the country, with 11 states including Pennsylvania and Arizona searching for the character. Ghostface from 1996's Scream ranked second with eight states. Chucky from Child's Play (1988), the Xenomorph from the Alien franchise, and Norman Bates from Psycho (1960) also rank high on the list.

FrontierBundles.com

Not every Halloween term Americans are searching for is horror-related. Some of the more wholesome seasonal queries that appear in Google's data include candy, crafts, and maze. But for every Google user searching for family-friendly fall activities, there are plenty looking up horror movies and monsters as well. Here's what people are Googling in your state for Halloween.