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In History, These 15 African-Americans Were The First To Be Awarded Oscars

Viola Davis, Ezra Edelman, Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney join the more than 30 dark performers, chiefs, artists, scholars, makers and sound blenders who have won Academy Awards.

In 2002, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry broadly turned into the primary dark performers to win both lead acting honors around the same time, unexpectedly that night that Sidney Poitier, the main dark man to win an Oscar, got a privileged honor. Washington’s Oscar was his second, additionally winning best supporting performer in 1990 for his part in Glory.

The only African-American to take home multiple acting Oscars, Washington joins Willie D. Burton and Russell Williams as the only black men to win more than one Academy Award.

Despite the gains made this year, diversity among the Oscar nominees and in Hollywood at large will continue to be a heavily scrutinized issue.

In light of that, take a look back at all of the Academy Awards’ black winners over the past 89 ceremonies.

Hattie McDaniel-1940

  • The first black person to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, had to accept her 1940 best supporting actress trophy in a segregated hotel. Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick had to call in a special favor to have McDaniel, who played head slave Mammy in the Civil War epic, allowed into the no-blacks Ambassador Hotel, where the 12th Academy Awards was taking place. McDaniel beat out her Gone With the Wind costar Olivia de Havilland as well as Geraldine Fitzgerald (Wuthering Heights), Edna May Oliver (Drums Along the Mohawk) and Maria Ouspenskaya (Love Affair). During her tearful speech, the daughter of two former slaves indicated she hoped her prize would have lasting significance. “I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything 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,” she said.

    Sidney Poitier-1964

     Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win an Oscar with his best actor award for Lilies of the Field. Poitier beat out Albert Finney (Tom Jones), Richard Harris (This Sporting Life), Rex Harrison (Cleopatra) and Paul Newman (Hud). Accepting his award from Anne Bancroft at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Poitier stated “it is a long journey to this moment,” thanking Ralph Nelson, James Poe, William Barrett, Martin Baum and the Academy.

     

    Isaac Hayes- 1972

    Isaac Hayes became the third African-American Oscar winner and first in the non-acting categories when he took home the best original song award for his “Theme From Shaft.” Hayes’ Shaft theme beat “The Age of Not Believing” (Bedknobs and Broomsticks), “All His Children” (Sometimes a Great Notion), “Bless The Beasts & Children” (Bless the Beasts & Children) and “Life Is What You Make It” (Kotch). Hayes had performed his song on a smoke-filled stage, wearing shades and a gold chainmail vest surrounded by dancers in Afros and white bell-bottoms. The son of a Tennessee sharecropper family brought his grandmother Rushia Wade, who mostly raised him, to the Oscars with him and thanked her “most of all” in his speech. “Years ago her prayers kept my feet, the path of righteousness … And this is a thrill for me. And also, a few days her eightieth birthday, and this is her present from me.” Speaking of his win, daughter Heather Hayes told The Hollywood Reporter that “Being able to take [his grandmother] to the Oscars and win was life-changing for him. It meant anything is possible in this life.”

    Louis Gossett- Jr.1983

    Courtesy of The Oscars/YouTube

    The first African-American to win the best supporting actor Oscar took home the award for his role as Gunnery Sgt Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman. He beat Charles Durning (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), John Lithgow (The World According to Garp), James Mason (The Verdict) and Robert Preston (Victor/Victoria). After accepting the statuette from presenters Susan Sarandon and Christopher Reeve, Gossett referenced some key people in his life, saying he tried to get his child to join him onstage and joking about his 17 year relationship with his agent Ed Bondy. “They say marriages don’t last,” Gossett quipped. He also said he was sharing the award with the other four nominees, holding up the Oscar and proclaiming, “this is ours.”

     

    Irene Cara-1984

    What a feeling, indeed! Irene Cara won the best original song Oscar for “Flashdance…What a Feeling” from Flashdance, sharing the award with Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey. The composition beat out fellow Flashdance track “Maniac,” “Over You” from Tender Mercies and two songs from Yentl, “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” and “The Way He Makes Me Feel.”

     

    Prince- 1985

    Prince won the last Oscar for best original song score and was the first black winner of the category that was put on hiatus afterwards. The actor-singer-songwriter won for his Purple Rain soundtrack, beating Jeff Moss’ The Muppets Take Manhattan score and Kris Kristofferson’s Songwriter score. Prince was accompanied onstage by his Revolution bandmates Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin in what THR, at the time, called “an unusually subdued appearance” by the “flamboyant singer.” Still, Prince called his win “very unbelievable. I could’ve never imagined this in my wildest dreams.”

    Stevie Wonder-1985

    Stevie Wonder won best original song for “I Just Called To Say I Love You” from The Woman in Red, beating out Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” from the film of the same name, Ray Parker Jr’s “Ghostbusters,” from the film of the same name and two Footloose songs, the title track and “Let’s Hear It For The Boy.” Wonder seemed in disbelief as he accepted the award, recalling how the moment was a real manifestation of his dreams. “All through Europe I had dreams—and I would always wake up—that I was at an awards show and the nominees were coming up, and they’d say this song and this song, and the winner is…! And I would wake up,” Wonder said. “But I never thought that this would happen.”

     

    Lionel Richie- 1986

    Lionel Richie called his best original song win for “Say You, Say Me” from White Nights, “Outrageous.” The song beat “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)” from The Color Purple, which Richie also helped write; “The Power of Love” from Back to the Future; “Surprise, Surprise” from A Chorus Line and another White Nights song, “Separate Lives,” the “love theme” from the movie.

    “In the truest sense of the word I will say to you that this represents a dream come true,” Richie said after winning. “Many, many years of believing and dreaming and a lot of friends and a lot of family that said, ‘You can do it, just keep on trying hard.’ I want to say to all of them and to all the people that have supported me over the years, thank you very much for keeping up with my foolishness.”

     

    Herbie Hancock- 1987

    The first black winner for best original score, Herbie Hancock, won for his work on ‘Round Midnight. He beat the scores for Aliens (James Horner), Hoosiers (Jerry Goldsmith), The Mission (Ennio Morricone) and Leonard Rosenman (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). Accepting the award from Bette Midler, Hancock indicated that perhaps preparing a speech ahead of time, as he was asked to do, but hadn’t done before, was good luck. And he paid tribute to the jazz greats that paved the way for him. “In accepting this award I salute the same unsung heroes that you so boldly have chosen to applaud,” he said. “Some are with us today and some are not. Many have suffered and even died for this music, this greatest of all expression of the creative spirit of humankind—jazz. From their suffering and pain we can learn that life is the subject, the story that music so eloquently speaks of, and it is not the other way around. We as individuals must develop our lives to the fullest, to strengthen and deepen the story that others can be inspired by life’s song…Praise has been long overdue for Bud Powell, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and many, many others. Along with you, I thank them. Along with them, I thank you.”

    Willie D. Burton- 1989 and 2007

    Willie D. Burton became first black person to win best sound in 1989. In 2007, he won again, for best sound mixing. He won his first Oscar, after receiving his fourth nomination, for his work on Bird, alongside Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander and Vern Poore. The Bird sound team beat those who worked on the sound for Die Hard, Gorillas in the Mist, Mississippi Burning and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

    In 2007, he joined Michael Minkler and Bob Beemer in accepting the sound mixing prize for their work on Dreamgirls. They beat the sound mixing nominees from Apocalypto, Blood Diamond, Flags of Our Fathers and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

     

    Denzel Washington- 1990 and 2002

    Denzel Washington is the only African-American to take home multiple acting Oscars, winning in 1990 for his supporting role as Pvt. Trip in Gloryand in 2002 for his lead role in Training Day — a landmark night for Oscar diversity, with Halle Berry also winning the best actress prize for her work in Monster’s Ball.

     

    After accepting his award from presenter Julia Roberts, Washington began his remarks with “Two birds in one night, huh?”

    “Forty years I’ve been chasing Sidney [Poitier], they finally give it to me, what’d they do? They give it to him the same night,” Washington continued. “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir. Nothing I would rather do. God bless you. God bless you.”

    Russell Williams II- 1990 and 1991

    Russell Williams is the first black person to win multiple Oscars in any category. Williams took home back-to-back best sound Oscars as part of the teams that worked on Glory and Dances With Wolves. In 1990, Williams, Donald O. Mitchell, Gregg C. Rudloff and Elliot Tyson beat the sound teams from The Abyss, Black Rain, Born on the Fourth of July and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In 1991, Williams, Jeffrey Perkins, Bill W. Benton and Greg Watkins beat the sound teams from Days of Thunder, Dick TracyThe Hunt for Red October and Total Recall.

    Whoopi Goldberg- 1991

    The actress and future Oscar host won her first Oscar on her second nomination. Taking home the best supporting actress prize for her role as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost, Goldberg accepted her award from Denzel Washington at the Shrine Auditorium. She beat out Annette Bening (The Grifters), Lorraine Bracco (Good Fellas), Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart) and Mary McDonnell (Dances With Wolves).

    In her speech, Goldberg talked about how her win was a childhood dream come true.

    “Ever since I was a little kid I wanted this,” she said. “You don’t know. My brother’s sittin’ there, he says, “Thank God we don’t have to listen to any more. You can do it now.” My mom’s home, everybody’s watching.”

     

    Cuba Gooding Jr- 1997

    The Jerry Maguire star, who won for his role as Rod Tidwell, delivered an enthusiastic acceptance speech after he won the best supporting actor Oscar. Gooding beat out William H. Macy (Fargo), Armin Mueller Stahl (Shine), Edward Norton (Primal Fear) and James Woods (Ghosts of Mississippi) for the prize and quickly thanked several people, including his wife, Cameron Crowe, Tom Cruise, James L. Brooks, Regina King and “Everybody involved with the movie!” Gooding proclaimed “I love you!” several times and jumped around onstage towards the end of his speech.

     

    Halle Berry- 2002

    The same night as Washington and Poitier’s honors, Halle Berry won best actress for her role as Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball, marking the first time two black performers won the lead acting Oscars in the same year and becoming the first and, as of 2016, only black actress to win the Oscar for best actress.

     

    Jamie Foxx- 2005

    Jamie Foxx

    Jamie Foxx was singing a happy tune after he won the best actor Oscar for his role as Ray Charles in Ray. The winner performed a little Ray Charles with the audience after he beat out Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), Johnny Depp (Finding Neverland), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator) and Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby). Foxx name-checked Winfrey and Berry and, like Washington before him, invoked Poitier, whom he said Winfrey allowed him to meet. Mimicking Poitier’s voice, Foxx recalled him saying, “I saw you once. And I looked in your eyes and there was a connection … I give to you responsibility.”

    As himself, Foxx continued: “So I’m taking that responsibility tonight. And thank you, Sidney.” He also paid tribute to his late grandmother, whom he called his “first acting teacher.”

    “She still talks to me now; only now she talks to me in my dreams,” Foxx said. “And I can’t wait to go to sleep tonight because we got a lot to talk about.”

     

    Morgan Freeman- 2005

    Morgan Freeman won his first Oscar after receiving his fourth nomination. The veteran actor won the best supporting actor prize for his role as Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris in Million Dollar Baby, beating out Alan Alda (The Aviator), Thomas Haden Church (Sideways), Jamie Foxx (Collateral) and Clive Owen (Closer). Accepting the statuette from Renee Zellweger, Freeman thanked “everybody and anybody who ever had anything at all to do with the making of this picture,” including director Clint Eastwood and co-star Hilary Swank. “This was a labor of love,” Freeman added.

     

    Three 6 Mafia- 2006

    Three 6 Mafia had the Oscar audience abuzz when the rappers won the best original song award for their Hustle & Flow composition “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” The trio of Jordan “Juicy J” Houston, Cedric “Frayser Boy” Coleman and Paul “DJ Paul” Beauregard beat “In The Deep” from Crash and “Travelin’ Thru” from Transamerica.

    Speaking to THR, DJ Paul revealed the rappers were certain they wouldn’t win even though they eagerly attended and performed on the Oscars. “My lawyer wrote out a piece of paper with the names of all the people we were supposed to thank if we won: Craig Brewer, the director. John Singleton, the producer. Sony Records. This person, that person,” DJ Paul recalled. “We balled it up and threw it away. We were like, ‘Man, we don’t need this paper. We’re not going to win. F— that paper!'”

    Forest Whitaker- 2007

     

    Whitaker won the best actor prize in 2007 for his role as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, beating Leonardo DiCaprio (Blood Diamond), Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson), Peter O’Toole (Venus) and Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness). Accepting his award from Reese Witherspoon, Whitaker seemed overwhelmed by the moment and how far he’d come.

    He took a few seconds to compose himself before talking about how his win was a dream come true.

    “When I was a kid, the only way that I saw movies was from the backseat of my family’s car at the drive-in, and it wasn’t my reality to think I would be acting in movies,” Whitaker said. “So receiving this honor tonight tells me that it’s possible, it is possible for a kid from east Texas, raised in South Central L.A.

    He ended by thanking God, saying that He’s “given me this moment in this lifetime that I will hopefully carry to the end of my lifetime into the next lifetime.

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