Seventy-five years ago, Hattie McDaniel accepted the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role as Mammy in the civil war epic Gone With the Wind, becoming the first African American to win the prestigious prize.
It was fitting that the award was handed out on a leap day, Feb. 29, 1940—the win was a momentous leap forward for African Americans in film. Since McDaniel won the award, 15 African-American actors have also won the golden statuette. Here are five things you should know about the trailblazing actress.
1. McDaniel had to get permission to enter the hotel where the awards ceremony was being held.
The 12th Academy Awards were held in Los Angeles at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel, which had a strict no-blacks policy. Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick had to pull strings so that McDaniel could enter the building. And even then, once McDaniel arrived, rather than being seated with her co-stars at the Gone With the Wind table, she was put at a table against the wall and in the back, where she sat with her escort and her white agent.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time McDaniel had to face racist policies while working on the film.
2. She was banned from the premiere of Gone With the Wind.
The film’s opening night at Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta on Dec. 15, 1939, was a spectacular affair, with thousands of people lining the streets to watch the limousines carry the stars to the theater. Selznick had wanted the entire cast, including McDaniel, to attend the premiere, but the South’s Jim Crow laws barred McDaniel and other black performers from sitting with their white co-stars in the theater. Images of her were even removed from the premiere’s program.
“[Selznick] wanted the black performers to go because he was going to use them to promote the film in the African-American community, where it had been receiving criticism,” Jill Watts, author of Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, told NPR.
When leading man Clark Gable heard that McDaniel wouldn’t be allowed to attend, he initially planned to boycott the screening. But McDaniel convinced him to go.
3. The whereabouts of her Oscar remain a mystery.
When she died in 1952, McDaniel left her Oscar to Howard University, which had honored her with a luncheon after she won the award.
According to a 2010 article in the Washington Post, the university’s archivists said they never received the award, which was actually a plaque and not the golden statuette we’re all familiar with today (supporting actors wouldn’t start receiving the little golden man until 1943). But some students recalled seeing the award on display in the school’s drama department.
Speculation about the whereabouts of the award are vast and varied. One rumor had the award being thrown into the Potomac River after racial unrest caused by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Some say the award is probably stored away somewhere in the school’s archives. A 2009 NPR story even raised the possibility that university officials may have failed to recognize the simple plaque as a prestigious award. Others suspect that it was stolen.
In 2011 George Washington University law professor W. Burlette Carter issued a report (pdf) on her year-and-a-half-long investigation into the Oscar’s whereabouts. She concluded that the award was neither thrown into the Potomac nor stolen but, rather, was simply stored in the university’s theater department in the early ’70s. She, too, suggested that those responsible for taking care of the university’s artifacts may not have realized the significance of the plaque.
4. She had the perfect response for haters.
Throughout her career, McDaniel was criticized by the black community, including the NAACP, for playing subservient parts that reinforced negative stereotypes of African Americans. Although McDaniel’s prospects didn’t change much after she won the Oscar, having worked as a maid in real life, she knew which role she preferred.
“Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one,” she reportedly once said to her critics.
“I’d rather play a maid than be a maid,” was another famous line delivered by McDaniel, according to her co-star Ann Rutherford.
Since then, views about McDaniel’s legacy have softened, and many now view her as a hero and pioneer. Mo’Nique, who won best supporting actress in 2010 for her role in Precious, and who paid tribute to McDaniel in her acceptance speech, recently told the Hollywood Reporter, “If they knew who this woman really was, they would say, ‘Let me shut my mouth.’”
5. She helped abolish restrictive housing practices in California.
Racially restrictive covenants—provisions in housing deeds that barred the selling of homes to certain people such as blacks and Jews—weren’t just something found in the Deep South; they were pretty common in places such as Los Angeles, too. During legal challenges, McDaniel and other celebrity plaintiffs lent their names to the cause to raise awareness. In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the restrictions unconstitutional.