Hattie McDaniel, the first Black Oscar winner, finally comes home

Decades after her Academy Award was lost, a replacement emerges to restore her complicated legacy
Actress Hattie McDaniel in a promotional photo from 1939, the same year that “Gone With the Wind” premiered, for which she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. (Courtesy Everett Collection/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Actress Hattie McDaniel in a promotional photo from 1939, the same year that “Gone With the Wind” premiered, for which she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. (Courtesy Everett Collection/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Editor’s Note: This story is one in a series of Black History Month stories that explores the role of the arts in the Black community. This story originally ran Feb. 24, 2019.

When Hattie McDaniel was dying of cancer in 1952, she made a special request.

She wanted the 1940 Oscar she won for her role supporting role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind,” to go to Howard University.

It was there until the late 1960s or early 1970s, when it mysteriously went missing. Was it thrown away? Misplaced? Stolen during a period of student unrest?

Last October, representatives from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Howard with a replacement Oscar for McDaniel.

“It was as if she was there with us,” said Phylicia Rashad, the dean of the university’s Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts at the time.

Since her ground-breaking performance that made her the first Black person to be nominated for and win an Oscar, McDaniel’s legacy has been profound and complicated.

Critics called her character the only sensible and likable person in the entire epic film.

Hattie McDaniel was a major Hollywood star by the time she won the Oscar in 1940 for her role in the film Gone with the Wind. But Many African Americans at the time felt that she had been typecast in roles that perpetuated many difficult-to-accept racial stereotypes.

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But the accolades didn’t bring about star treatment. An article in The Hollywood Reporter recalled the evening:

McDaniel arrived for the 12th Academy Awards, held at the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel, in a rhinestone-studded turquoise gown with white gardenias in her hair. She was escorted, not to the “Gone With the Wind” table — where Selznick sat with Olivia de Havilland, who was the other supporting actress nominee, and his two Oscar-nominated leads, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable — but to a small table set against a far wall, where she took a seat with her escort, F.P. Yober, and her white agent, William Meiklejohn. With the hotel’s strict no-Blacks policy, Selznick had to call in a special favor just to have McDaniel allowed into the building.

McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895, in Wichita, Kansas, to former enslaved people. She left school in 1910 to become a performer in several traveling minstrel groups.

During the Great Depression there was little work to be found for minstrel or vaudeville players, so she took a job as a bathroom attendant at Sam Pick’s club in Milwaukee. Although the club as a rule hired only white performers, some of its patrons became aware of McDaniel’s vocal talents and encouraged the owner to make an exception.

McDaniel performed at the club for more than a year until she left for Los Angeles, where she found a small role on a local radio show, “The Optimistic Do-Nuts.” Known as Hi-Hat Hattie, she became the show’s main attraction.

Movies came next, but she was constantly relegated to servant-type roles. During the 1930s she played a maid or a cook in nearly 40 films, which brought criticism from Black groups.

“Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid?” McDaniel asked. “If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week actually being one!”


After World War II, the NAACP and other liberal Black groups lobbied Hollywood for an end to the stereotyped roles in which McDaniel had become typecast. Her Hollywood opportunities declined.

In 1947, McDaniel became the first African American to star in a weekly radio program aimed at a general audience when she agreed to play a maid on “The Beulah Show.”

In 1951, while filming a television version of the popular “Beulah” show, McDaniel had a heart attack. She recovered sufficiently to tape a number of radio shows in 1952 but died soon thereafter of breast cancer.


In the history of the Academy Awards, only 22 performances by Black actors or actresses won Oscars.

Here is the complete list of past winners:

Best actress Halle Berry and best actor Denzel Washington pose for photographers with their Oscar trophies during the 74th annual Academy Awards on Sunday, March 24, 2002 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Best actor

  • Sidney Poitier – “Lilies of the Field,” 1963
  • Denzel Washington - “Training Day,” 2001
  • Jamie Foxx - “Ray,” 2004
  • Forest Whitaker - “The Last King of Scotland,” 2006
  • Will Smith - “King Richard,” 2021

Best actress

  • Halle Berry - “Monster’s Ball,” 2001

Best supporting actor

  • Louis Gossett Jr. - “An Officer and a Gentleman,” 1982
  • Denzel Washington - “Glory,” 1989
  • Cuba Gooding Jr. - “Jerry Maguire,” 1996
  • Morgan Freeman - “Million Dollar Baby,” 2004
  • Mahershala Ali - “Moonlight,” 2016
  • Mahershala Ali - “Green Book,” 2018
  • Daniel Kaluuya - “Judas and the Black Messiah,” 2020

Best supporting actress

  • Hattie McDaniel - “Gone With the Wind,” 1939
  • Whoopi Goldberg - “Ghost,” 1990
  • Jennifer Hudson - “Dreamgirls,” 2006
  • Mo’Nique - “Precious,” 2009
  • Octavia Spencer - “The Help,” 2011
  • Lupita Nyong’o - “12 Years a Slave,” 2013
  • Viola Davis - “Fences,” 2016
  • Regina King - “If Beale Street Could Talk,” 2018
  • Ariana DeBose - “West Side Story,” 2021


The AJC’s Black History Month series focuses on the role of African Americans and the Arts and the overwhelming influence it has had on American culture. These daily offerings appear throughout the paper. More subscriber exclusives on the African American people, places and organizations that have changed the world are available at ajc.com/news/atlanta-black-history