Oscar: First Black to be Honored with Academy Award

The first black actor to be honored by the Academy was James Baskette, who received a Special Oscar in 1947.

Baskette played Uncle Remus in Disney’s Song of the South, a movie that required him to sing to cartoon animals. He was cited in recognition of his “able and heartwarming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the children of the world.”

Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper claimed that it was her idea to honor Baskette as a humanitarian gesture. Some Academy board members opposed the award because Baskette played a slave, feeling that Negroes should play only professionals, doctors, lawyers, scientists.

Similar objections were raised in 1939, when Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing a servant in Gone With the Wind.

According to Hopper, Jean Hersholt threatened after a heated argument that, “If Baskette didn’t receive an Oscar, I shall stand up tomorrow night and tell the world the whole disgraceful story.”

The board gave in and asked Hollywood’s then most popular star, Ingrid Bergman, to present Baskette the award.