The Curious Case Of A Missing Academy Award Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in the 1939 epic Gone With the Wind — becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award. But her award has been missing for some 40 years. Was it lost, stolen or simply overlooked?
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The Curious Case Of A Missing Academy Award

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The Curious Case Of A Missing Academy Award

The Curious Case Of A Missing Academy Award

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Academy Award history is littered with fascinating stories including more than a few about missing and stolen Oscars.

Just days before the 2000 ceremony, 55 statuettes disappeared from a Los Angeles loading dock. All but two were later recovered. Then, there's the case of Hattie McDaniel. The native of Wichita, Kansas got her statuette as Best Supporting Actress for the 1939 epic, "Gone with the Wind." She was the first African-American to win an Oscar, but hers has been missing for some 40 years. Carla Eckels of member-station KMUW in Wichita looks into the mystery.

CARLA ECKELS: Hattie McDaniel acted in more than 300 movies, but she's best known for her role as Mammy, the maid in "Gone with the Wind."

(Soundbite of film, "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. VIVIEN LEIGH (Actor): (As Scarlett O'Hara): Mammy, darling.

Ms. HATTIE McDANIEL (Actor): (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 you, and going I am.

ECKELS: Carlton Jackson, author of "Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel," says he thinks the actress sensed she was in the running for an Academy Award.

Mr. CARLTON JACKSON (Author, "Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel"): She wrote to some of her friends that she was sort of holding her breath waiting for the announcement, but she didn't make a big deal of it until she got it. Then she made that speech where she could just barely finish because she was overcome emotionally.

(Soundbite of Academy Award Ceremony)

Ms. McDANIEL: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, 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. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.

(Soundbite of applause)

ECKELS: In the years before World War II, winners in the Supporting Actress category received plaques, not the Oscar statuettes. McDaniel proudly displayed hers at her home. Towards the end of her life, author Carlton Jackson says she became ill from breast cancer.

Mr. JACKSON: She began to parcel out various of her worldly goods, and she presented this Oscar to Howard University in Washington, D.C.

ECKELS: The plaque went on display at Howard's fine arts complex. Thomas Battle is the current director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard. He says that exactly when the award disappeared remains a mystery.

Mr. THOMAS BATTLE (Director, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University): The understanding that I've developed has been that it was probably in the late 1960s or early 1970s or perhaps during a period of student unrest at the university. But unfortunately, all of the principals who would have been involved at the university at that time, administrators and others, are no longer with us, and we have not been able to get the kind of direct information that we would like to be able to pursue this investigation further.

ECKELS: Denise Randle was there. Beginning in 1972, she was responsible for tracking the university's inventory of artifacts. If the plaque did disappear during the student unrest of the late '60s, Randle says it might have been thrown away by someone upset that the award was for a black woman's role as a servant.

Ms. DENISE RANDLE: The sentiment at the time, if it was during the upheaval, it's quite possible, someone being upset with her role. At that time, it was black power, black power, but they may not have understood where she really stood in the film industry and the pioneer that she was.

ECKELS: But Randle, who now lives in Wichita, says she thinks McDaniel's Academy Award was simply misplaced.

Ms. RANDLE: I think it was someone who moved it to a safe place and then didn't tell anyone where they moved it and then since either retired or forgot about it. But in looking at the fine arts department where it would be the most logical place, we couldn't find it.

ECKELS: For nearly 20 years, Wichita actress Karla Burns has portrayed Hattie McDaniel in one-woman shows. She has her own theory about what happened to the plaque.

Ms. KARLA BURNS (Actress): I do not believe that Hattie McDaniel's Oscar was thrown away. I believe that it was stolen. The representation of African-American people at that time was very powerful because she had done something no one else had ever done. And the next African-American woman to win was 51 years later with Whoopi Goldberg.

ECKELS: But there's one more possibility. Everyone could have been looking for an Oscar statuette and overlooked the plaque McDaniel actually received. For NPR News, I'm Carla Eckels in Wichita.

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