Hattie McDaniel and Fay Bainter
By Tom Gregory
The Huffington Post
The article that follows is a rerun of a piece I wrote in HuffPo over a year ago. The Academy is still unwavering in its choice not to reissue Howard University McDaniel’s statuette. At this historic time, I hope the Academy will finally do the right thing. — Tom Gregory
Today, more than any day ever before, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is poised on the brink of a crisis of conscience.
Hattie McDaniel is best known for her portrayal of “Mammy” in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. She was born in Kansas in 1895, the same year Booker T. Washington delivered his famous “Atlanta Compromise” address. One hundred and thirteen African Americans were officially reported lynched in 1895. (Click on ‘Continue Reading’ for more)
Jim Crow laws that mandated the “separate but equal” ruling were enforced throughout Hattie McDaniel’s life. These edicts supported segregation that reversed gains black Americans had been granted during reconstruction.
White Supremacists who defended Jim Crow cited examples supporting oppression contained within their bible. In 1915 the Klan was reinvigorated as a Christian organization. The KKK openly recruited in white churches attracting members including the clergy. Still today, the Ku Klux Klan envisions itself defending, what they call “true Christianity.” Like today, the boundary separating church and state was a dangerous dotted line.
When Gone with the Wind premiered in December of 1939, most of its stars were present for the grand gala, but its black actors were not welcome in Jim Crow Atlanta. Even when McDaniel’s portrait was simply printed on the back of a movie program, the brochures were destroyed. New programs were printed with a picture of Alicia Rhett, a minor Caucasian character, taking the star’s spot.
For the Twelfth Annual Academy Awards Presentation Dinner on February 29, 1940, the Ambassador Hotel’s swanky Coconut Grove was decked out in Hollywood style. Hattie was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She was segregated into the ballroom’s black section. Still, that night an elated Hattie won her historic Oscar not by playing a maid, but a slave.
Critical acclaim for her role as “Mammy” was followed by criticism. Throughout the 1940s, many enraged African-Americans became frustrated with McDaniel’s stereotypical servant roles. Happy, obedient, slightly awkward black comic foils were a forties film staple; Hattie accepted these roles because they were the only ones offered. She said she’d “rather make seven hundred dollars playing a maid than seven dollars being one.” McDaniel’s characterizations were strong-willed women who commanded a household, but also answered the door and cleaned the house.
Hattie McDaniel never knew Martin Luther King’s push towards an integrated America; she died three years earlier. McDaniel lived her entire life under the Supreme Court ruling of 1896 that stated “separate but equal” was fair in the United States. A life burdened by legalized segregation was all she ever knew.
Jules Roth, managed the “Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery” where so many of her fellow stars and friends were interred. Because of her race, he refused to allow the historic first African American winner of Hollywood’s highest award to be buried on the property. For Hattie, even death discriminated.
In her will, the star divided her modest estate, valued at less than $10,000 among several friends and relatives. She willed her history-making Oscar to Howard University. Hattie McDaniel hoped that her golden boy would never be buried in an archive, but instead would stand as a beacon of pride and inspiration to future generations of students.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in ’68, no one would ever see Hattie McDaniel’s academy award again. Howard University was the flashpoint of the national riot that followed the death of Dr. King. Furious, frustrated black students are rumored to have heaved the Oscar into the Potomac River in effigy of racial stereotyping. Like Hattie herself, it too is buried in the wrong place, a victim of rage and hate.
Howard University is forced to take the official stand that the award is “missing” because no witnesses to its watery interment have ever come forward. My telephone inquiries to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills — who issue the awards and could reissue a new one in Hattie McDaniel’s name to Howard University — were answered by the same official line: it is “missing,” which, the Academy states, is not reason enough to reissue the historic statuette that means so much to the history of equality.
Hattie McDaniel’s cenotaph at Hollywood Forever
Happily, today’s Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery owners aren’t as difficult as the Academy. In 1999 Hattie got her chance to be buried in the final resting place she had stipulated. Tyler and Brent Cassity, who have bought the Hollywood property, renamed it “Hollywood Forever” and offered to move Hattie’s remains from Culver City, California to Hollywood. Her family declined their offer; they did not want to disturb her after 47 years. The Cassitys erected a respectful monument to Hattie on one of the property’s most coveted plots.
Perhaps with some prodding and pushing, the Academy will see fit to close this final chapter on the first person of color to win an Oscar. Hattie McDaniel was one of Hollywood’s — and America’s, most heroic citizens. She not only survived but thrived during a time when people of color were officially, legally victimized. Born separate but equal and dead before integration, McDaniel achieved historic accomplishments against unimaginable odds.
It’s time for the Academy to do the right thing and reissue her Academy Award, until then, every Oscar statuette ever made is even more tarnished than the one that sits in the bottom of the Potomac.