Hattie Mcdaniels With Academy Award

In the Footsteps of Hattie McDaniel: Black Oscar Firsts

The men and women who made history at the Academy Awards

On February 29, 1940, "Gone With the Wind" actress Hattie McDaniel — who wowed critics with her performance as maid Mammy in the 1939 film — became the first African-American to win an Academy Award, earning the then-customary plaque (seen above) for Best Supporting Role by an Actress. Despite her historic achievement, McDaniel wasn't even allowed to sit with her cast mates: The 12th annual ceremony was held at a segregated hotel in Hollywood, and McDaniel was forced to sit along a back wall.

Yet, according to "The Hollywood Reporter," her acceptance speech couldn't have been more gracious. "I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future," she said. "I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry."


Nearly 80 years later, McDaniel's story is a reminder of how far the industry has come — and how much work is still left to do. Here, we celebrate the black men and women who have followed in her footsteps and made Oscar history.

First Best Actress Nominee: Dorothy Dandridge, 1955 Bettmann/Bettmann Archive First Best Actress Nominee: Dorothy Dandridge, 1955 The 32-year-old was nominated for her performance in the title role of "Carmen Jones," but lost to Grace Kelly for "The Country Girl." Dandridge would later be immortalized by future Oscar winner Halle Berry in the 1999 TV movie "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge." First Best Actor Nominee and Winner: Sidney Poitier, 1959 and 1964 Gene Lester/Getty Images First Best Actor Nominee and Winner: Sidney Poitier, 1959 and 1964 The second time was the charm for Poitier, having been nominated for 1958's "The Defiant Ones." His turn in 1963's "Lilies of the Field" was what would clinch the coveted statuette. Nearly 40 years would pass before another black man won Best Actor — that award went to Denzel Washington for "Training Day" in 2002. First Best Original Song Winner: Isaac Hayes, 1972 Bettmann/Bettmann Archive First Best Original Song Winner: Isaac Hayes, 1972 It's "Shaft." Can ya dig it? First Best Original Screenplay Nominee: Suzanne De Passe, 1972 Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage First Best Original Screenplay Nominee: Suzanne De Passe, 1972 De Passe was nominated alongside co-writers Chris Clark and Terence McCloy for the 1971 Billie Holiday biopic "Lady Sings the Blues." De Passe & Co. were beat out by Jeremy Larner for the political dramedy "The Candidate." First Best Supporting Actor Winner: Louis Gossett Jr., 1983 William Nation/Sygma via Getty Images First Best Supporting Actor Winner: Louis Gossett Jr., 1983 Perhaps the film should be renamed "An Oscar Winner and a Gentleman." Gossett's performance as Sgt. Emil Foley in the 1982 film earned him top honors. First Best Original Song Score Winner: Prince, 1985 Bettmann/Bettmann Archive First Best Original Song Score Winner: Prince, 1985 "Purple Rain" reigned. (It's worth noting the Best Original Song Score category—a confusing designation used by the Academy for only about a dozen years—was retired after Prince's win.) First Producer Whose Film Was Nominated for Best Picture: Quincy Jones, 1986 David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images First Producer Whose Film Was Nominated for Best Picture: Quincy Jones, 1986 Jones' drama "The Color Purple" was nominated for a staggering 11 Oscars but would end up losing Best Picture to "Out of Africa." Overall, the composer/producer has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, though he has yet to win one. (He was bestowed with the Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1995.) First Best Original Score Winner: Herbie Hancock, 1987 Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage First Best Original Score Winner: Herbie Hancock, 1987 The prolific performer and composer won for the 1986 musical drama "Round Midnight." First Best Sound (Later Best Sound Mixing) Winner: Willie D. Burton, 1988 Vince Bucci/Getty Images First Best Sound (Later Best Sound Mixing) Winner: Willie D. Burton, 1988 Burton has been recognized in this category many times over (he's seen here with his statue for "Dreamgirls" in 2007), but his first win came in 1988 for the Charlie Parker biopic "Bird." First Best Director Nominee: John Singleton, 1992 Anthony Barboza/Getty Images First Best Director Nominee: John Singleton, 1992 The 24-year-old was nominated for his directorial debut, "Boyz n the Hood." but lost to Jonathan Demme for "The Silence of the Lambs." An African-American has never won in this category. First Best Actress Winner: Halle Berry, 2002 TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images First Best Actress Winner: Halle Berry, 2002 Forty-seven years after Dandridge's nomination, Berry became the first black woman to win Best Actress for "Monster's Ball." Her tearful acceptance speech still resonates in the #OscarsSoWhite age: "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me: Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. Thank you. I'm so honored. I'm so honored. And I thank the Academy for choosing me to be the vessel for which His blessing might flow." First Best Documentary Short Subject Winner: Roger Ross Williams, 2010 Michael Caulfield/WireImage First Best Documentary Short Subject Winner: Roger Ross Williams, 2010 Director Williams (seen here with producer Elinor Burkett) won for the 2009 documentary "Music by Prudence," about 21-year-old Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Prudence Mabhena. First Best Adapted Screenplay Winner: Geoffrey Fletcher, 2010 Michael Caulfield/WireImage First Best Adapted Screenplay Winner: Geoffrey Fletcher, 2010 The novel "Push" by Sapphire became "Precious" on the big screen thanks to Fletcher. First Best Documentary Feature Winner: T.J. Martin, 2012 ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images First Best Documentary Feature Winner: T.J. Martin, 2012 The director (seen here flanked by producer Rich Middlemas and co-director Dan Lindsay) won for the 2011 doc "Undefeated," chronicling the struggles of a high school football team in Memphis. First Producer to Win Best Picture: Steve McQueen, 2014 Ian West - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images First Producer to Win Best Picture: Steve McQueen, 2014 McQueen took home the statue for "12 Years a Slave" (for which he was also nominated for Best Director). First Original Screenplay Winner: Jordan Peele, 2017 FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images First Original Screenplay Winner: Jordan Peele, 2017 The "Get Out" director won for his horror flick starring Daniel Kaluuya. "I thought it was impossible, that it would never work, that I could never make this movie," Peele said during his acceptance speech. "This is to all the people who let me raise my voice and let me make this movie... My wife, who supported me through this whole process. My mom, who taught me to love in the face of hate. And to everyone who went and saw this movie!"