Land of the free

McDanielThe first black performer to win an Academy Award film Oscar was Hattie McDaniel, for a supporting role in the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind; an American Civil War soap opera, centering on the foibles of a Southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara.

At the film’s premiere in Atlanta, the setting for the story, thousands of people lined the streets. At the reception, after the film’s showing, the Civic Authorities informed the producer of the film, David O Selznick, that McDaniel, due to the colour of her skin, should not be part of the celebration in joining her co-stars at the top table. Selznick bowed to the pressure, but permitted the actress to sit in a corner of the hall, with her escort, at a table for two.

At the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, 1940, McDaniel was again racially segregated from her co-stars in the film, being seated at the rear of the auditorium. Clark Gable, Rhett Butler in the film, protested at her treatment, but she persuaded him not to make a fuss. When her name was announced as best supporting actress, and despite the humiliation, her acceptance speech is recognized as one of the best ever made at the Oscars.

At her death in October 1952, her request to be buried at a cemetery where other Hollywood stars were laid to rest was refused, as the Cemetery practiced racial segregation.

She left an estate of less than $10,000. Internal Revenue claimed she owed $11,000 in taxes. The probate Court ordered all her property, including her Oscar, to be sold to pay off creditors.

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