Academy Award trivia buffs likely know the answer to who was the first African American to win an Oscar, but the general population may immediately think of modern African American superstars, such as Will Smith or Denzel Washington. However, the first African American to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel in 1940.
Born in Kansas in 1895, Hattie McDaniel joined her 12 performing brothers and sisters at an early age. As a teenager, McDaniel left home and joined a traveling vaudeville show, eventually breaking into local radio and did club performances. Making her way to Hollywood, McDaniel got her big break in Judge Priest (1934), where she sang a duet with Will Rogers. Many movie rolls followed, around 40 over the next 8 years. After her success in 1940 for Gone With the Wind, McDaniel continued to work in Hollywood, blazing the trail for better roles for African Americans-more than just cooks and maids. McDaniel enjoyed success in the long-running radio show The Beulah Show (1947-1952). After a diagnosis of breast cancer in 1951, her health declined and McDaniel died in 1952.
Until McDaniel's role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, there had been no African Americans in a major role in a Hollywood film. For several years, McDaniel fought the stereotype of blacks in movies as dull-witted and demure. The persona she brought to several previous roles were witty and sassy. The Mammy character was a blend of old and new-devoted and dependent yet strong and intelligent. With more screen time than almost any other African American role in a major picture, McDaniel's performance cemented her reputation as one of the most successful African American performers of the decade.
After winning the Best Actress in a Supporting Role Oscar, McDaniel and many of her supporters felt it was a huge blow towards the inequality and racism in Hollywood. However, there were others who felt that African American actors should refuse to take roles that reinforced traditional black stereotypes. McDaniel's award was a point of contention between different factions of the African American community.
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