Approximately six decades after it had gone missing, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be replacing the Academy Award given to actress Hattie McDaniel for her work in 1939’s Gone With The Wind.
McDaniel’s win for Best Supporting Actress for her role of “Mammy” marked the first time an African-American won an Oscar.It would be another 24 years before another black actor would win an Academy Award – Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field. It would be 51 years before Whoopi Goldberg’s win her work on Ghost would mark her as the second African American to win in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Just McDaniel’s nomination for an Academy Awardy was enough to stir controversy over a role that had already been accused of reinforcing a negative stereotype. When she and her escort attended the Academy Awards ceremony on February 29, 1940 at the segregated Coconut Grove at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, McDaniel and her escort for the evening had to sit at a small table at far wall of the room away from the other attendees. Her white agent, William Meiklejohn, joined her at that table. You can see McDaniel’s acceptance speech in the video below.
Upon her death in 1952, McDaniel willed her Academy Award plaque – Best Supporting Actors and Actresses received plaques and not the traditional Oscar statuette up until 1942 – to Howard University in Washington DC. There the award was on display in the school’s fine-arts building, Childers Hall up to some point in the late 1960s/early 1970s when it disappeared.
The Academy will present the replacement trophy to Howard University’s Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts on October 1 in a ceremony that will will celebrate McDaniels’ life and legacy and her historic Academy Award win.
As to when exactly McDaniels Academy Award vanished, no one knows. A 2010 story in the South Florida Times on the award’s disappearance cited a student who recalls seeing it as late as 1968, and suggests that it was lost sometime shortly afterwards. The reasons vary from it being taken by student protesters who only saw McDaniel’s an offensive racial stereotype to it being taken from where it was displayed and hidden to avoid being damaged by student protesters to it being stolen and clandestinely sold to a collector. The story does state that the school had previously approached the Academy for a replacement Award in 2005 only to be rebuffed, being told ““We do not create replacements for heirs or whomever may have come into possession of an award following the winner’s death.” This appears to have been a change in policy sometime after 1988, when the Academy replaced Orson Welles’s missing Best Screenplay Oscar statue for writing Citizen Kane. (It may be possible that the change in policy came about in the years following replacing the Welles Oscar, when the original was rediscovered, setting off a number of legal cases over its ownership.)