There is plenty in our history that we cannot be proud of, especially when it comes to race. But that doesn't mean we should forget that part of our history. Remember what Edmund Burke said, "those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it." And one person from our past is someone who deserves to be remembered, Hattie McDaniel, the first African American actor to win an Academy Award.
McDaniel was an amazing woman, born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1893 to former saves, was the youngest of thirteen children. She acted in over 300 films but only received a screen credit for 83. She was also the first African American woman to sing on the radio. In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and became the first Black Academy Award winner to be honored with a United States postage stamp. But what Hattie McDaniel is most remembered for is her role as "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind, the epic Civil War film made in 1939.
It was for this role that McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, beating out Olivia de Havilland, also nominated for her role in the film. The African American community wasn't necessarily happy with the film, many complained that it glorified slavery, but others embraced McDaniel's performance. The film made its premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 15, 1939. David O. Selznick asked that McDaniel be permitted to attend, but MGM advised him not to ask because of Georgia's segregation laws. Clark Gable planned to boycott the premiere unless McDaniel was allowed to attend, but McDaniel convinced him to go anyway.
If that wasn't enough of an insult, fasten your seatbelts. The Academy Awards that year were held at the Coconut Grove Restaurant of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (the same hotel that Robert Kennedy would later be assassinated), which had a strict no-Blacks policy. But McDaniel was allowed in as a "favor." Though that favor required her and her escort to sit at a segregated table for two at the far wall of the room; William Meiklejohn, her white agent, sat at the same table.
Since McDaniel won that first Academy Award in 1940, thirty-six other African Americans have won that prestigious award, a meager number considering over 3,000 have been given out at the time we wrote this article. By the way, it was twenty-four years after McDaniel's historic win before another African American won. You could probably guess who, yes, Sidney Poitier won in 1964 for his role in Lilies of the Field. Issac Hayes was the third winner, won for the theme song to the movie Shaft. The second African American woman to win was Whoopi Goldberg. She won in 1990 for Best Supporting Actress in Ghosts. Goldberg, of course, did not have to sit in the back of the room.
The first African American to win a Golden Globe was Diahann Carroll. She won for her role in the television series, Julia, in 1969. Carroll did not have to sit in the back of the room at those awards.
This year, another black actress, Cynthia Erivo has been nominated for an Oscar for her role as Harriet in the movie of that same name. Erivo was born fifty-eight years after McDaniel was forced to sit in the back of the room at the Academy Awards. If she wins, it would be nice if Erivo says something about what happened in 1940.
Since we first posted this article, Gone with the Wind has again been swept up in controversy. Protests has erupted across the country after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. A spokesperson for HBO Max, which is owned by WarnerMedia, said that "Gone with the Wind" is "a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society." The spokesman went on to say, "These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible." We don't know if Gone with the Wind is going to be erased -- and that would be unfortunate -- and perhaps be the beginning of a cinematic purge. Perhaps book burning will follow?
We hope this doesn't take the memory of Hattie McDaniel with it. Today, Hattie McDaniel is remembered with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood: one at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard for her contributions to radio and another at 1719 Vine Street for her contributions to film.
As a footnote, McDaniels has returned to Hollywood, sort of. In May, 2020, Netflix debuted its miniseries, Hollywood, a post-World War Two drama about the film industry. In a couple of episodes, Queen Latifah plays Hattie McDaniel who gives advice to an aspiring African American actress.