Who was the first African American to win an Academy Award?
African Americans have been appearing in film since nearly its advent. However, it took until 1940 for one of their talents to be recognized by the Academy.
Motion pictures came into being shortly before the turn of the 19th century. Almost from the start African Americans began appearing in films, albeit at first in those made by other African Americans. Their roles in “White Hollywood” movies were usually that of extras and heavily stereotyped bit parts.
However, that didn’t stop Black actors and actresses from striving to become ever more recognized for their talents. While relegated to the role of maid in many of the films she landed a part in, Hattie McDaniel, became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1940 for her performance of Mammy in ‘Gone with the Wind’.
Who was Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award?
McDaniel was born in Wichita, Kansas 10 June 1895, the youngest of 13 children, born to emancipated slave parents. She went on to become a successful actress, singer-songwriter and comedian despite facing racism and racial segregation throughout her career.
Singing with the Melody Hounds, a Black touring ensemble, in the mid-1920s she became the first Black woman to be broadcast on American radio on station KOA in Denver. After moving to Los Angeles the year before, McDaniel made her first film appearance in 1932 in ‘The Golden West’. Two years later she got her first major role in ‘Judge Priest’. Through the 1930s she gained popularity and was cast for ever larger roles in movies, however, mostly as a maid.
In 1939 she was cast for the role of Mammy, a house slave, later servant at Tara, in ‘Gone with the Wind’. That role earned her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, becoming the first African American to receive such a recognition from the Academy and for which she won the Oscar.
“I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel,” McDaniel said during her acceptance speech.
McDaniel had to deal with segregation at the Oscars and beyond
When the film for which she received Hollywood’s most prestigious honor premiered in Atlanta, McDaniel was unable to attend. The event was held at a Whites-only theater. She also had to deal with segregation at the Oscars dinner where she wasn’t allowed to sit with her White cast members. The venue, The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, was segregated and McDaniel was placed at a small table at the side of the room.
Despite that, she would later write of her achievement: “My own people were especially happy. They felt that in honoring me, Hollywood had honored the entire race. That was the way I wanted it. This 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.”
McDaniel died in 1952, and despite one of her final wishes being to be buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery it was denied. At the time the graveyard was restricted to Whites only.
However, she was given two stars, one each for radio and film, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame when it was installed in 1961. She was also featured on the US Postal 39-cent stamp in 2006.
“To you young people who are aspiring to succeed in some line of endeavor, in spite of the troubles that many of us have experienced, let me say this, ‘There is still room at the top,’” Hattie McDaniel.