1940: Oscar So Black

Hattie Mcdaniels With Academy Award
Best Supporting Oscar used to be a plaque.

The real Oscar buzz began for Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in Gone With the Wind, after she nailed a scene where she tearfully relays to family friend Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) that Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is suicidal over the death of his baby girl.

While black folks and black newspapers alike didn’t “give a damn” about Gone With the Wind (GWTW)—the film adaptation of a racist novel that glorified slavery—they were excited that McDaniel could potentially make history with a Best Supporting Academy Award win.

The actress couldn’t rely on buzz, however. Nor would she could depend on Hollywood to do the right thing. Instead, she walked into producer David O. Selznick’s office in Culver City, Calif., with a stack of articles that and gently leaned on him to submit her name for Oscar contention.

Hattie in mirror
McDaniel close up.

Black journalists urged readers to write Selznick and demand that McDaniel be put in the running, and a letter from McDaniel’s sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho, predicted that discrimination and prejudice could be wiped away if she were to win. Selznick agreed with her supporters that her performance was Oscar worthy, and put her name forward. (Awkwardly enough, one of the actresses she was up against was co-star de Havilland).

McDaniel’s journey to that moment was a slow, arduous climb. Though she’d come from a talented family of entertainers in Denver, only her two older brothers had consistent success in show business. The eldest had died in his 30’s, while Sam McDaniel, a few years older than Hattie, landed bit parts and played Deacon McDaniel on CBS’ radio show, the Optimistic Do-Nut Hour. Mostly he earned his living as a bandleader.

Baby sister Hattie struggled, often taking domestic work, as her mothers and sisters before her. Though she performed often, and even toured with a 1929 Show Boat production, the Depression gutted her entertainment career, and she came west from Milwaukee where she was squeaking by in 1931. In Los Angeles, she was a recurring cast member on Sam’s radio show and gigged with the Sarah Butler’s Old Time Southern Singers. She also took on domestic work to make ends meet, just as older sister, Etta, did. All three siblings got roles in moving pictures here and there.

Hattie and clark
Friends McDaniel and Gable in Gone With the Wind.

With the success of 1934’s Imitation of Life, featuring a white woman and a black woman as friends (actresses Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers), bigger, brown-skinned women such as Beavers—and McDaniel—were suddenly in vogue. And when McDaniel got word that Selznick was casting GWTW, she read the 1935 Pulitzer Prize winning novel several times, determined to claim the part of Mammy for herself.

Landing a contract would mean guaranteed pay for several months, but it required patience as Selznick milked the free publicity by dragging out the audition process. He even sent talent scouts to acting troupes around the country. Several stars, including McDaniel, screen tested for their parts more than once.

Once she’d won the role, shot her part, and been nominated for the Oscar, McDaniel became the first African-American to attend the ceremony, then-12 years old. In the background, actor Clarence Muse, columnist and actor Harry Levette, and journalist Earl Morris were the among the first African-American Academy voters to cast ballots that year, according to one of Hattie’s biographers, Jill Watts.

USPS06STA004B
2006 U.S. Postal Service

Still, some black folks were not appeased by what they perceived to be window dressing on a shack of a story that demeaned blacks and made slavery seem tepid compared to the real thing. Walter Francis White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People  nudged Selznick for several years to consult with him (or a black scholar) to expand and enhance GWTW’s black story line. Selznick corresponded with White, and yet held him at bay. But the producer could not stop protesters from picketing his feature outside theaters around the country, or at the Oscar ceremony itself at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel.

That pivotal night, Fay Bainter, the previous year’s Best Supporting winner took the stage and proclaimed how happy she was to present this “particular” honor which “enables us…to reward those who have given their best regardless of creed, race or color…” With that, she teed up the announcement that McDaniel had scored the momentous victory and an historic first.

McDaniel bounded up the steps to accept her award—back then a small

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 11.22.28 AM
McDaniel got her second wind with radio’s Beulah.

plaque with a petite Oscar figurine welded to it—and forgot(?) the speech Selznick International had prepared for her. Instead she spoke from her heart.—and very possibly from a speech that she and journalist and friend, Ruby Berkley Goodwin Ruby Berkley Goodwin, had written together. (GWTW went on to take 10 Academy Awards, including best picture.)

Flowers and congratulatory telegrams poured in from around the country, with papers, big and small, championing the victory. But within a year or two, McDaniel was again desperate for work. Her career floundered until 1947, when she landed the role of Beulah on the radio.

 

 

 

 

 

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Back It Up (Traveling While Black Part II)

Hospital-interior-300x292Under Jim Crow law:

–White motorists had the right of way at all intersections.

–So-called passenger comfort was ensured by creating “equal but separate” train cars for blacks and whites.

–If a black person rode in a car driven by a white person, the black person sat in the back seat.

And woe be unto you if you traveled while black and got into a bad automobile accident. That’s what happened to entertainer Ethel Waters in Alabama circa 1918, where separate but equal almost cost her a leg.

In 1930, when NAACP leader Walter White’s father—who looked white—was struck by a car, his condition seemed to be stabilized at Atlanta’s clean Caucasian hospital. But when a relative of a darker hue arrived to visit, the criticallyDerricotteresize2 injured George White was summarily sent to the Colored wing. Severely underfunded, it was dirty and rodent infested; White died days later.

In ’31, Juliette Derricotte (right), dean of women at Fisk University, got into an accident in Chattanooga, TN. She and the driver received some emergency care from white doctors, but were refused admittance to the local white hospital, and succumbed by the following morning, causing an uproar around the injustice.

And those are just the bold-face names.

For Waters and many black performers during the Jim Crow era, which lasted from 1877 to the mid-1960s, touring was key to earning a living. Traveling was also a priority for many families whose members were at a distance from one another. (Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is a must-read on black migration.)

Victor Hugo Green, a mailman in Hackensack, NJ, stepped into the void with the intention of keeping blacks safer on the road. Around 1913, he came up with the concept for the Negro Motorist Green Book and the Negro Traveler’s Green Book.

“[He] and his wife, the former Alma Duke of Richmond, VA, and their family often made the nearly 700-mile round trip to her hometown during their long marriage,” Calvin Ramsey wrote in a National Writers Union newsletter. Green’s books were issued for 30 years, from the mid-30’s to the mid-60’s.

An 80-page-plusGreen Book guide, it listed Negro hotels, restaurants, and homes where travelers could stay. Services such as beauty and barbershops, doctors and dentists’ offices, as well as restrooms and gas stations could be sourced.

“[His] dream was that one day the Green Book would not be needed because African-Americans would enjoy full accommodations on the open road,” Ramsey asserted. Though Green died in 1960, his daughter kept the publication going several more years, through the passage of the Civil Rights Bills of the mid-sixties.

Those bills, along with federal funding for Medicare and Medicaid, ultimately forced  the last few Jim Crow hospital facilities to integrate. And though he couldn’t save his father, Walter White used his sway as an NAACP exec to get his childhood friend Louis Wright, MD, on the staff of the formerly all-white Harlem Hospital.

Green ultimately moved to Harlem, and his legacy has become a major inspiration to Ramsey, whose children’s novel, Ruth and the Green Book, tells of an 8-year-old going with her mom and dad from Chicago to Selma, ALcalvin-ramsey-1, to see her grandmother in the 1950’s. Along the way, they encounter a host of obstacles—until they get their hands on a Green book.

Ramsey (right) also wrote a play called The Green Book. Staged in Washington, DC, it starred the legendary civil rights activist Julian Bond, who shared with Ramsey that his family always traveled with the book. Attending the performance that night was Ernie Green of the Little Rock (Ark) Nine, who integrated an all white school in 1957. His family also relied on the guide. Musician Wynton Marsalis’ grandfather, who ran an Esso gas station in New Orleans, both advertised in and sold Green’s book.

When he attended the funeral of two dear friends’ son who died in a traffic accident in Atlanta about 15 years ago, Ramsey first learned about Green. It turned out that the grandfather of the child who died had traveled from New York City and happened to ask Ramsey where he might track down a Green Book.

“It was his first time traveling to the South,” says Ramsey, “and he thought it was still needed.”

Photos: Ashville Colored Hospital 1945; (AppalachianHistory.net), Juliette Derricotte (Equal Justice Initiative); The Green Book; Calvin Ramsey.

Because Josh Said So (Notes on a Revision)

whitewallet2As I told the writing teacher the eight most important turning points in my script—a k a story beats—I thought: He’s only half listening. But Josh Hoover of Thunder Studios got it, and his suggestions made me open up my screenplay and whack 12 pages right off the top.

“Often, your story starts too soon,” he shared in his 2-day class, now taught monthly at Long Beach Public Access Digital Network (PADNET). Then he said something that provoked an even more radical shift in my screenplay: That my main character didn’t sound like the main char

acter at all. It was her nemesis who took the most action, setting off the farthest reaching chain of events; so the story seemed to belong to him, Josh asserted.josh teaching class

I’d heard this before, but when he added his voice to the chorus, it felt like a consensus. So in paring away the first 12 pages, which had established actress Hattie McDaniel’s journey as the one the audience would take, I’m instead introducing the NAACP‘s Walter Francis White’s first, and am now beginning to chart the tale more through his eyes and sensibilities.

The shift is uncomfortable for me. Walter was a gutsy businessman, traveling globally, and going toe to toe with Congressmen, Presidents and other world leaders. I relate more to Hattie, the woman and artist, who often struggled. But why wouldn’t I welcome the opportunity to step into Walter’s more imposing shoes? Probably because it scares me to assume authority for touching so widely on the evolution of black culture, as he did, from arts to politics, from law to education, and beyond.

Truth is though, Walter was also an awalter and famrtist and an author. Helping to initiate the Harlem Renaissance, he hungered to spend more of his time writing. No doubt I’m drawn to the story of these two, born two weeks apart–Walter on July 1, 1893, and Hattie on June 18, 1893, according to the US 1900 Census–because they’re more alike than they are different. They both sought progress in their own ways, but perceived it differently.

My friend, Jill Dotlo, saw a natural connection between my astrological chart and Walter’s nearly three years ago. “No wonder you picked him,” she said, noting that we’re both Mercury in Fire people (Mercury in Leo, Aries or Sagittarius), who express themselves with vigor, confidence, and enthusiasm, even when their plans may not be practical. His Jupiter is on my Moon: You evoke joy and a sense of adventure, but can also overdo it. And his Pluto is on my Mars—”Whoa!” Jill exclaimed—which is often a powerful indicator of intrigue.

So maybe I was born to write about Walter’s expansive accomplishments, incorporate Hattie’s impressive range as an artist,  and continue to develop my own character by blending the best of theirs.

Top: Walter’s wallet at the Beinecke Library at Yale University; center, Josh Hoover’s class at PADNET, Long Beach, CA; bottom, Walter and his family at home in Harlem circa the late 1930s.

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When Walter Met Hattie

Hat and WaltWalter Frances White and Hattie McDaniel (left, center) met only once, but they spent years obsessed with one another.

They shook hands briefly during the summer of ’42, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which Walter headed, held its annual convention in Los Angeles. The Academy Award-winning actress also attended. I have to imagine that they got corralled into the picture by L.A.’s Mayor Bowron (right) because by then Hattie and Walter were on each other’s #*%@ list.

A couple of years ago, I made the trek cross country to the Beinecke Library at Yale to learn more about Walter, whose papers are there. White was light skinned with blond hair and blue eyes, yet his family had black and white roots. (An ancestor was President Harrison, who before he became Commander-in-Chief, fathered children with one of his slaves.) Gutsy, Walter went undercover to investigate lynchings; arranged legal defense for the Scottsboro boys; and leveraged the might of the NAACP to advance black rights on multiple fronts, setting the stage for the Civil Rights Movement.

Though it started in 1909, the NAACP didn’t gain momentum until 1915, when chapters began to form around the country to protest Birth of a Nation, which depicted black people as dangerous, ignorant brutes who had no business being free. The film glorified and reignited the Ku Klux Klan, which gave rise to Jim Crow, so the NAACP took the depiction of black people in films seriously from the gate. So when McDaniel won the Academy Award for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind, she popped up on Walter’s radar as the most visible symbol of the kind of stereotypical role he wanted to shut down.

To be fair to Hattie and the black actors who starred in the films of the 30’s and ’40s, neither America, nor Hollywood, was particularly enlightened about race. (I’m sure some of you are thinking, and they still aren’t, but stay with me here…) Hattie grew up in poverty, and struggled to keep her career afloat during the Depression, which lasted well into the 1930’s. She was, as so many were, grateful for steady employment.

I became fascinated by the relationship between Hattie and Walter, in part because of a few lines in one of her biographies, Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel, by Carlton Jackson: “She had a fear of being plunged back into her earlier conditions of indigence… thoughts like these made Hattie feel as thought Walter White was trying to grab the bread right out of her mouth.”

At the Beinecke, researching Walter, I saw a Yale student newspaper, which said something about Dean Kim Goff-Crews. I knew the name: She’s the great niece of Hattie McDaniel. I emailed her, and she told me to stop by. Her great aunt—through Hattie’s older sister, Etta–had died about a decade before Goff-Crews was born, but family memory of the parties Hattie threw; the way she doted on her nephews; and her legendary generosity lived on.

The more I thought about how their energies became enmeshed, the less surprised I was that when I came looking for Walter, I also found Hattie.

Photo: WinkFlash