Mammy's Grave: The complicated legacy of the 1st Black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel

In true Hollywood fashion, she was a heroine facing insurmountable odds.

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Friday, February 24, 2023
Mammy's Grave: The complicated legacy of the 1st Black Oscar winner
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As we approach the 95th Academy Awards, ABC7's FACEism series takes you back to the 1939 Oscars and focuses on an actress who shined bright in the spotlight. In true Hollywood fashion, she was a heroine facing insurmountable odds.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- In Hollywood, there are breakthrough roles and then there are roles that change history.

This story is the latter.

As we approach the 95th Academy Awards, ABC7's FACEism series takes you back to the 1939 Oscars and focuses on an actress who shined bright in the spotlight. In true Hollywood fashion, she was a heroine facing insurmountable odds.

This episode is called "Mammy's Grave."

At the Rosedale Cemetery in the Pico Union area of Los Angeles, between the shadows and overgrown grass, lies a humble gravestone that's barely visible. Buried there is someone far more significant than the surroundings would suggest.

At the 12th Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel, the daughter of former slaves, became the first African American to win an Oscar.

"I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry," she said during her acceptance speech. "My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you."

Her performance as "Mammy" in the epic historical romance film "Gone with the Wind" was one of the most memorable roles in history. But it did very little to garner the respect she craved.

In fact, it brought enormous criticism from the African American community.

"Hattie McDaniel is in a really tough position because she's an aspiring actress in the 1930s and the 1940s, and let's be frank, Hollywood was not all that amenable to opening up opportunities for African Americans in prominent roles in the 1930s and '40s," said Tyrone Howard, a professor of education in the School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA.

Much like life itself, Hollywood was an unfair world.

The Black stereotype was all that was offered.

McDaniel is famously quoted as saying, "I would rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being one."

McDaniel was a maid, and bathroom attendant, before she got her big break.

"It's complex," said Howard. "The NAACP at the time spoke out against her and that depiction and that role, but I think that you don't see a Halle Berry today. I don't think you see a lot of the other Black women actresses who are doing the amazing works that they do today without having a Hattie Daniel who helped to blaze trails for her."

Donzaleigh Abernathy, who has had a long successful career as an actress, also spent a lifetime fighting for equality. Her father, Ralph Abernathy, was the partner of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights movement.

She cringes at "Gone with the Wind's" portrayal of Black people.

"The depiction of the Black slave as the happy slave, we're happy with slavery, because we weren't," she said. "We were starved to death, and we were worked to death and there was no part of slavery that was good."

However, she understands McDaniel's dilemma, accepting demeaning roles, but also proving an African American can be a star.

"I didn't want to take anything away from the greatness of Hattie McDaniel because she had a presence so that when she came on screen, you didn't want to watch anybody else but her," said Abernathy.

Not only was McDaniel talented but lost in her story was her kindness.

She donated so much of her wealth back to the Black community, while at the same time, fighting severe prejudice.

At the "Gone with the Wind" world premiere in Atlanta, hundreds of thousands came out to greet the stars, but the Black cast members, including McDaniel, were forbidden from taking part.

Even the Oscars award show at the Ambassador Hotel was whites only. McDaniel had to get special permission to attend.

Whisked in through a side door and forced to sit at a table far away from her fellow cast members - never an equal.

McDaniel died in 1952 of breast cancer at the age of 59.

Her final wish was to be buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery with all the other stars. However, that was denied. At the time, it was whites only.

So here she is: The daughter of former slaves, a trailblazer, but barely visible, never finding the freedom and acceptance she deserved.

As for McDaniel's Oscar, it's now a great mystery.

In her will, she donated the award to Howard University, a historically Black university. It sat there in a display case until 1972, when it was boxed up and stored away.

At that point, it disappeared and no one has seen it in 50 years.

Watch more episodes of ABC7's FACEism series on your favorite streaming devices, like Roku, FireTV, AppleTV and GoogleTV. Just search "ABC7 Los Angeles."