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The first black Oscar winner fought segregated housing in Los Angeles — and won

Hattie McDaniel, the first black Oscar winner, holding her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1940.
Hattie McDaniel, the first black Oscar winner, holding her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1940.
Separate Cinema Archive via Getty Images

As the Oscars draw closer, the Hollywood Reporter took a look at the legacy of Hattie McDaniel, best known as the first African American to win an Academy Award in 1940 for her role in Gone With the Wind.

It turns out, though, that her impact reaches far beyond cinema. McDaniel played a pivotal role in desegregating housing in Los Angeles.

"The house on 24th street — when she bought that house, there was a real estate covenant that said, 'no blacks, no Hispanics, whatever' and she said 'bullshit,'" MaBel Collins, the partner of McDaniel’s grandnephew Edgar Goff, said. "She said, 'I want that house,' the man who was selling her the house wanted her to have it, so if you look in your history books or in legal files, you’ll see that’s what started the fair housing in California."

In 1938, McDaniel and other black celebrities of the time, like blues and jazz singer Ethel Waters and actress Louise Beavers, moved into the colonial mansions in the city’s West Adams Heights neighborhood.

But instead of white residents embracing their new neighbors, some created restrictive housing covenants. These contracts barred buyers from selling property to certain types of people.

One example of a covenant, according to the Los Angeles Times, stated "[t]hat said property shall not … at any time be leased, sold, devised or conveyed to, or inherited by … any person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race."

Unfortunately, restrictive housing covenants became quite common at the time.

As a reaction to the influx of Southern blacks to other regions and major cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York during the early 20th century, white residents created those housing covenants to make sure neighborhoods stayed the same by keeping property in white hands.

In 1945, some of West Adams Heights' white residents filed a lawsuit against 31 black neighbors, including McDaniel. White residents weren't able to uphold the restrictive housing covenants and wanted the court to help them enforce the deeds.

McDaniel organized Saturday workshops to strategize for the case, and gathered 250 sympathizers who accompanied her to court in December 1945.

Opposing counsel argued that restrictive housing covenants were constitutional. Although the Supreme Court ruled in Buchanan v. Warley that it was unconstitutional for local governments to allow racial housing segregation in 1917, nine years later the Court ruled that racial segregation through private deeds was permissible in Corrigan v. Buckley.

After hearing both sides, Judge Thurmond Clarke left the courtroom to see the disputed neighborhood for himself. That visit was enough for Clarke to throw out the case the next day.

"It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations or evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th Amendment to the Federal Constitution," Judge Clarke said.

"Judges have been avoiding the real issue too long," he continued. "Certainly there was no discrimination against the Negro race when it came to calling upon its members to die on the battlefield in defense of this country."

"That’s one fine judge," McDaniel said, according to the LA Times.

McDaniel’s case set a precedent that would later help the Supreme Court rule it unconstitutional for the courts to enforce restrictive housing covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948.