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Howard Univ. plays role in mystery of 1940 prize

J. Freedom Du Lac
Howard Univ. plays role in mystery of 1940 prize
Hattie McDaniel, left, was given the Motion Picture Academy Award for the best performance of an actress in a supporting role in 1939 for her work as “Mammy” in the film version of “Gone With the Wind” on Feb. 29, 1940 in Los Angeles, Calif. The presentation of the award was given by actress Fay Bainter, right. (Photo: AP)

Author: AP /The Washington Post, Tracy A. WoodwardHattie McDaniel, left, was given the Motion Picture Academy Award for the best performance of an actress in a supporting role in 1939 for her work as “Mammy” in the film version of “Gone With the Wind” on Feb. 29, 1940 in Los Angeles, Calif. The presentation of the award was given by actress Fay Bainter, right.

WASHINGTON — After winning the 2010 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Mo’Nique noted that she was wearing a royal blue dress, along with a gardenia in her hair, because that’s what Hattie McDaniel wore 70 years earlier, when she became the first African American to receive an Academy Award.

“Ms. Hattie McDaniel, I feel you all over me, and it’s about time that the world feels you all over them,” said Mo’Nique, the actress and comedienne who is producing a film biography about McDaniel.

The tribute renewed an old mystery: Where is McDaniel’s own, historic Oscar?

It belongs to Howard University’s theater department, which has spent years trying to figure out what happened to the Oscar that disappeared decades ago — though nobody knows exactly when.

“It’s a never-ending mystery,” says Tom Gregory, a Hollywood memorabilia collector. “Where is it? It’s really an unbelievable story.”

McDaniel was named Best Supporting Actress in 1940 for playing the servant Mammy in “Gone With the Wind,” a performance that earned praise even as McDaniel was criticized for perpetuating negative stereotypes.

When she died of breast cancer in 1952, McDaniel bequeathed her Oscar to Howard’s drama department, which had honored the pioneering actress with a luncheon after her win. (McDaniel had no academic affiliation with the school.)

Howard archivists say there’s no official record that the university ever received the award, which was a plaque, not one of the iconic Oscar statuettes. (Supporting actor and actress winners didn’t get statuettes until 1943.) But former students vividly recall seeing it in the school’s fine-arts building, Childers Hall.

Charles “Buddy” Butler, a theater major who graduated from Howard in 1968, says he saw the plaque displayed in a glass-enclosed case in the Childers greenroom. The university’s drama chairman at the time, Owen Dodson, “was so proud of having it at Howard,” says Butler, who now teaches theater at San Jose State University in California. “Dodson talked about it as something we, as African American students, could aspire to.”

Sometime after Butler graduated, though, McDaniel’s award vanished. Gone, as it were, with the wind.

Was it taken by student protesters to repudiate the subservience of McDaniel’s Mammy? The Wikipedia entry on McDaniel states as fact that her Oscar “disappeared during racial unrest (at Howard) in the late 1960s.” (One version of that popular theory has students tossing the award into the Potomac.)

Other theories abound: maybe the plaque was moved for safekeeping during a period of black-power protest and never made it back to its display case. A professor might have walked away with it. Perhaps it was stolen, then sold to a collector. Any of this could have happened in 1968. Or was it 1973?

“Sometime in the early  1970s — I can’t recall the exact date — I was back on campus and went into the greenroom, and it wasn’t there,” says Donal Leace, a professional singer and former Howard student who remembers holding McDaniel’s Oscar in his hands sometime in the 1960s.

Leace is convinced that the award — among the most valuable and historically significant artifacts in African American film history — was stolen. By whom, he has no idea. “It’s odd; these things usually get out,” he says. “Somebody fesses up to having seen it.”

“Nobody knows when it went missing — that’s partly why nobody knows where it might be,” says Leslie Unger, spokeswoman for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Five years ago, Joseph Selmon, Howard’s theater chairman, asked the academy to issue a replacement Oscar for McDaniel. Citing a long-standing policy, the academy said no, sending instead a framed photo of McDaniel and a sheet of commemorative McDaniel postage stamps. “We do not create replacements for heirs or whomever may have come into possession of an award following the winner’s death,” explains Unger.

Interest in McDaniel has been rising. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor in 2006, and a musical, “Hattie . . . What I Need You to Know,” has played off-Broadway. Producer Re’Shaun Frear is also petitioning for a replacement award. “I’m trying to get the African American film community behind it so the academy has no choice,” he says.

Mo’Nique’s planned biopic comes as scholars increasingly argue that there was more to the pioneering actress than Mammy — and that her best-known performance was atypically forceful for a black female in 1930s Hollywood, anyway.

“Through Mammy, she was offering a thickly veiled critique against stereotypes,” says Jill Watts, a history professor at California State University at San Marcos and author of “Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood.” “People have been coming around to that in the last 10 to 15 years.”

In the 1960s, though, as the civil rights movement soared and social turbulence swept across Howard’s campus, many students viewed McDaniel with disdain.

“I was too radical to truly appreciate the genius of Ms. McDaniel,” says writer Pearl Cleage, who studied at Howard in the mid-1960s. “I was conditioned to be angry because she won the award for playing Mammy. Politics trumped the art of her amazing performance.”

Vera J. Katz, a former drama professor, recalls the day Butterfly McQueen, who also played a servant in “Gone With the Wind,” came to campus and was booed by students: “They felt she was a Thomasina — an Uncle Tom. They were upset with her for playing a sweet, stupid servant.”

Could the same students who booed McQueen have taken McDaniel’s Oscar in protest?

“There were a lot of things — a lot — that ended up being stolen or ‘went missing,’ because there was an attitude to try to get rid of the past,” says Geoffrey Newman, a Howard alumnus and theater chairman who is now a dean at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Newman is certain the Oscar “was stolen by an irate student who wanted to erase Hattie McDaniel.”

Gregory, the Hollywood collector, thinks the award, which he values at more than $550,000, was thrown into the Potomac in a final act of erasure. “I spoke to a guy who told me it was heaved into the river — he was there,” Gregory says, though he cannot recall his informant’s name. “Why would you do that? It’s like heaving a diamond ring into the river because you’re mad at somebody.”

That story “makes for an interesting legend, but I would have to think that is not even remotely true,” says Richard Wesley, who studied at Howard in the 1960s and now teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Few students outside the drama department knew Howard had the Oscar, Wesley says. “And certainly no drama student at Howard would have done something as disrespectful as that, even if we were still willing to fuss about the symbolism of Mammy.”

He has another theory: “I am pretty certain that Owen Dodson took the Oscar with him. He was very protective of his artifacts.”

But Dodson didn’t have the Oscar when he died in New York in 1983, according to James Hatch, author of “Sorrow Is the Only Faithful One: The Life of Owen Dodson” and literary executor of Dodson’s estate. He “never saw at any time an Academy Award in Owen’s apartment” and “never heard him talk about it.”

Butler, the San Jose State professor, has a theory involving a different Howard instructor. “I’ve heard on more than one occasion that it was taken by Mike Malone,” Butler says. “I heard from a couple of former students that they had seen the award in Mike’s apartment’’ in Cleveland, where Malone became artistic director of the Karamu House theater company.

But Reggie Kelly, who was a Malone protege at Karamu House, says he never saw the artifact during frequent visits to Malone’s apartment and that Malone, who died in 2006, “never mentioned anything about Hattie McDaniel or the award.”

Selmon has settled on yet another narrative: The award was put into storage, perhaps in an unmarked or mismarked box. He remains optimistic it will be found. Eventually.

It’s hardly uncommon for things — important things — to be misplaced at large universities, including Howard.

Consider the case of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. For years, a bronzed pair of the great tap-dancer’s shoes sat in the same display case that held McDaniel’s Oscar. Then, the shoes vanished.

“Everybody thought they were gone,” says Selmon. “But they were actually just in a box somewhere.”

The bronzed shoes are now in the same locked library storage room where a Howard employee recently discovered more McDaniel material.

But excitement quickly evaporated. The find was not the Academy Award, but an old photo of McDaniel. In a file cabinet nearby, there was also this: An old memo with an ageless title: “Where Is Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar?”

The Washington Post