When the 88th Academy Awards get underway tonight, we’ll see how award presenters, host Chris Rock, the inevitably big-mouthed stars, and Film Twitter address #OscarsSoWhite. But as the all-white nominees get their awards, we should take a moment to remember the first black person to win—or even be nominated for—an Oscar.
Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in 1939’s Best Picture, Gone with the Wind. As actress Fay Bainter said when she presented McDaniel with her award, the Academy’s historic decision to break its color barrier “opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America.”
But change wasn’t that easy. McDaniel almost wasn’t allowed to attend her own awards because the hotel in which it was hosted was whites-only. She had to sit at a small side table, away from the rest of the Gone with the Wind cast.
McDaniel’s emotional acceptance speech is a poignant reminder of how little has changed for black actors in Hollywood, who are often nominated only for roles that paint stereotypical or painful portraits of African American life. As a minority of one at the Awards that night, McDaniel was forced into the impossible role of standard-bearer for an entire race:
[Your kindness] has made me feel very, very humble, and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.
McDaniel played a maid 74 times over her career. Watch her acceptance speech in full: