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Howard University receives a replacement for Hattie McDaniel's missing Oscar

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For decades, Hattie McDaniel's Oscar has been missing. McDaniel was the first African American to be nominated for and win an Academy Award for her supporting role as Mammy in 1939's "Gone With The Wind." She bequeathed the award to Howard University here in Washington, where it was displayed, then disappeared. Over the weekend, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Howard with a replacement for that missing Oscar, and the university held a ceremony honoring the life and legacy of the trailblazing performer titled, "Hattie's Come Home." NPR's Marc Rivers was there and has this report.

MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: As a student at Howard University, Phylicia Rashad would often stop and stare at Hattie McDaniel's Oscar on display in one of the college's theater spaces.

PHYLICIA RASHAD: We had classes in that room, and there was something of a presence.

RIVERS: But sometime in the late 1960s or early '70s, it went missing.

RASHAD: It had been liberated, so to speak. By whom? We know not. For what reason? There's never a good one.

RIVERS: Whatever happened to the original award, Howard now has a new one. Washington News anchor and Howard alum, Leslie Foster, presided over the on-campus ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LESLI FOSTER: I am delighted to be here with you all to celebrate such a momentous and historic occasion.

RIVERS: To help mark that occasion, Howard students performed an excerpt from "Boulevard Of Bold Dreams," a play inspired by McDaniel's life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Character) Can I ask you something? Why do you play nothing but maid roles?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Hattie McDaniel) It's a job. I get to be on camera acting. And it's not like there's other parts for folks looking like us.

RIVERS: Earlier, a large screen over the stage played clips from some of Hattie McDaniel's 300 or so film credits, including the 1941 Western, "They Died With Their Boots On" and, of course, her Oscar-winning role as Mammy in "Gone With The Wind."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

VIVIAN LEIGH: (As Scarlett O'Hara) Mammy, darling...

HATTIE MCDANIEL: (As Mammy) No use to try to sweet talk me, Miss Scarlett. I know you ever since I put the first pair of diapers on you. I said I was going to Atlanta with ya, and going I is.

RIVERS: Back then, there wasn't much variety in terms of the kinds of roles Black actors had access to. And over the course of her career, McDaniel played a maid in more than 70 films. Organizations like the NAACP criticized her for taking roles they saw as degrading to Black people.

JACQUELINE STEWART: You know, when you learn Black film history, it tends to be framed by the question of stereotypes.

RIVERS: Jacqueline Stewart is the president of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. She moderated the night's discussion of McDaniel's career. And she says viewers should take a deeper look at what Black actors like her did within the rigid confines of the roles they played.

STEWART: Hattie McDaniel is just like a radical figure in that regard because you can see that she's doing things in the nuances of the way that she speaks and gestures and interacts with her other performers, her fellow performers, to show that she's not really believing in the limitations of these parts, but rather she's questioning them.

RIVERS: Kevin John Goff, who sat on the panel, agreed. He's a filmmaker and he's also Hattie McDaniel's great grandnephew. He helps people also remember that despite the seemingly subservient roles she took on screen, she was a fighter.

KEVIN JOHN GOFF: She fought for fair housing. She was part of the NAACP. And she had arguments with, you know, certain heads of the NAACP. But she was part of it. She donated her money to charities. She knew what she was doing. She didn't bite her tongue. She wasn't a pushover. They found out. They wanted her to say the N-word in "Gone With The Wind." And she said, no, I'm not saying that. So she stood for something.

RIVERS: McDaniel's new Oscar will be enshrined in the lobby of Howard's Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts building. Perhaps there, it will serve as a beacon for current students like it once did for Phylicia Rashad.

RASHAD: It was her intention that her Oscar should be here. And here it comes again (laughter). That's a power of intention.

RIVERS: An intention decades in the making, realized at last.

Marc Rivers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX STEINER'S "TARA'S THEME - GONE WITH THE WIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marc Rivers