ON February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award, winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for giving life to Mammy, the Gone with the Wind house servant. Fay Bainter heralded McDaniel by telling the audience that the gong “opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America….”
Hattie McDaniel, left, was given the Motion Picture Academy award for the best performance of an actress in a supporting role in 1939 for her work as “Mammy” in the film version of “Gone With the Wind” on Feb. 29, 1940 in Los Angeles, Calif. The presentation of the award was given by actress Fay Bainter, right.
Vivien Leigh had seen off Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Greta Garbo and Greer Garson to win the best actress award for playing Scarlett in GWTW, that year’s Best Picture, which somehow beat The Wizard Of Oz. (In all, Gone With The Wind won 8 Oscars.)
British actress Vivien Leigh, holding her Oscar, which she won for Best Actress for her role in the film “Gone With The Wind”, talks to American film producer David O. Selznick, at the banquet of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, in Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 29, 1940. Selznick also won a special award for the same film.
And now McDanile had bested Olivia de Havilland, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Edna May Oliver and Maria Ouspenskaya (all white) to take the ultimate accolade.
McDaniel, who had been seated in the cheap seats by the kitchen, had been banned from attending the film’s premier in Atlanta on account of her skin hues and attending the Atlanta premiere.
Daily Variety noted: “Not only was she the first of her race to receive an Award, but she was also the first Negro ever to sit at an Academy banquet”.
It wasn’t until Sidney Poitier, won a best actor Oscar in 1963 that a black face won an acting Oscar.
Sidney Poitier was named best actor of the year for 1964 for his role in “Lilies of the Field,” awarded by actress Anne Bancroft, at right, at ceremonies in Santa Monica, Calif. on April 13, 1964. The award was presented by the Motion Picture Academy.
Those walls took a lot more moving than Bainter thought they would.
A stack of envelopes, all with the stamp featuring Gone with the Wind’s Hattie McDaniel, rest for sale on a table after being stamped with a commemorative postmarks, or cancelled, during the second unveiling of the stamp by the USPS in a ceremony to honor the actress, at Margaret Mitchell historic homeplace in Atlanta, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2006. The 39-cent stamp depicts McDaniel in a 1941 photograph in the blue dress she wore when she received the Oscar for best supporting actress.