In 1940, after appearing in Gone With the Wind, Hattie McDaniel became the first Black actor to win an Oscar. She gave the Best Supporting Actress award to Howard University shortly before her death in 1952, but the original disappeared without a trace about 50 years ago.
Now, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has issued a replacement for the missing honor. Officials presented the new award to the university in a ceremony over the weekend.
“Hattie McDaniel was a groundbreaking artist who changed the course of cinema and impacted generations of performers who followed her. We are thrilled to present a replacement of Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award to Howard University,” say Jacqueline Stewart, director and president of the Academy Museum, and Bill Kramer, the Academy’s CEO, in a statement. “This momentous occasion will celebrate Hattie McDaniel’s remarkable craft and historic win.”
Throughout her career, McDaniel appeared in some 300 films. She received the original plaque—all supporting performance winners between 1936 and 1942 received a plaque, rather than a statue—for her role in 1939’s Gone With the Wind, a film that “arrived as a cinematic triumph but has since been rebuked for its blind eye toward slavery,” writes the New York Times’ Jonathan Abrams. McDaniel played Mammy, who was enslaved by Scarlett O’Hara’s family.
McDaniel worked at a time when the film industry was rife with racism. Even at the Ambassador Hotel ceremony where she won her historic Oscar, McDaniel was forced to sit at a small table along a far wall, away from the cast’s other nominees. As the Hollywood Reporter’s Seth Abramovitch wrote in 2015, “With the hotel’s strict no-Blacks policy, [producer David O. Selznick] had to call in a special favor just to have McDaniel allowed into the building.”
Though she was lauded for her acting, critics—including those in the NAACP—argued that McDaniel played roles that were based in harmful stereotypes. In response to criticism, she often said, “I’d rather play a maid than be a maid,” per the Hollywood Reporter.
The replacement Oscar will be displayed in the lobby of Howard’s Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts building. The original is thought to have disappeared in the late 1960s or early 1970s, perhaps during a period of student unrest, reports NPR’s Ayana Archie.
“Apparently, a gentleman said he had thrown it in the Potomac,” Kevin Goff, McDaniel’s great-grandnephew, tells the Times. “Someone said maybe a drama professor took it with him. But none of it has been verified or proven. It’s never shown up on eBay. So, here we are 50-plus years later and no one has a clue where it is or if it still does exist.”
Denise Randle, who worked on tracking the university’s artifact inventory beginning in the early 1970s, initially believed it had been thrown away, per NPR. Later, she thought it may have been misplaced. Still, because most of those who worked in Howard’s administration at the time have since died, the fate of the original may never be known.
After so many years, McDaniel’s fans are glad to see the replacement.
“It’s 100 percent overdue,” Jill Watts, author of Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, tells the Times. “It was so meaningful historically as an award. Not just in the history of film, but also within American history, and it was meaningful to her personally. She would be absolutely delighted to know that it’s going home to where she wanted it to be.”