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.
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.