After becoming the first Black person to win an Academy Award, in 1940, Hattie McDaniel called the plaque she received a cherished beacon for all that could be accomplished.
McDaniel had earned the award for her portrayal of Mammy, an agreeable slave at the whim of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” a movie that arrived as a cinematic triumph but has since been rebuked for its blind eye toward slavery.
Before dying in 1952, McDaniel deflected the criticism she received for taking many stereotypical roles throughout her career.
“I’d rather play a maid than be one,” she would say, envisioning that her work would open better doors for future Black actors. She also had an eternal resting spot in mind for that beacon, bequeathing the Oscar plaque to Howard University in Washington.
But for about 50 years, McDaniel’s plaque has been missing, a cinematic void that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is now filling. The university will receive a replacement plaque this weekend in a ceremony titled “Hattie’s Come Home.”
“It’s 100 percent overdue,” said Jill Watts, the author of “Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood.” “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.”
Kevin Goff, McDaniel’s great-grandnephew, said that his father started petitioning for a replacement plaque in the 1990s, and that the decision would help cement McDaniel’s legacy.
Over the years, theories have circulated about the whereabouts of the plaque, which was given to all supporting acting winners from 1936 to 1942 rather than traditional Oscar statues. A spokesman for Howard University did not respond to a request for comment.
Goff said there were rumors that the plaque was stolen during student unrest about the university’s mission in the late 1960s.
“Apparently, a gentleman said he had thrown it in the Potomac,” he said. “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.”
W. Burlette Carter, a professor at George Washington University’s law school, wrote a paper about the missing award more than a decade ago. Her best guess is that it may still be somewhere at Howard, misplaced during a move by the drama department.
“That makes sense to me, having worked at a university, that when they moved the department, it got packed and it got lost,” Watts said. “I have this feeling that it’s probably still someplace, tucked away in a box.”
Watts said she and several others approached the Academy about replacing the Oscar following her book’s publication in 2005. “We were told no,” Watts said. “Just a flat no.”
That stance has shifted. The replacement plaque will soon reside at the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts.
Jacqueline Stewart, the president of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, and Bill Kramer, the chief executive of the Academy, said in a news release that the upcoming ceremony would celebrate McDaniel’s remarkable craft and historic win.
“Hattie McDaniel,” they said, “was a groundbreaking artist who changed the course of cinema and impacted generations of performers who followed her.”