Sydney Poitier became the first African American man to win an Oscar on this day in 1964. Poitier wins the Academy Award for Best Actor, for his role as a construction worker who helps build a chapel in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field on April 13, 1964.
Poitier was born in 1927 in the United States, while his parents were visiting from the Bahamas. Poitier dropped out of school as a teenager and returned to America to enlist in the United States Army during World War II. His brief military stint moved him towards his passions for joining the theater. He quickly applied to the American Negro Theater in New York City. Though he was initially rejected because of his strong Bahamian accent, Poitier trained himself in American enunciation and successfully reapplied.
The prolific actor debuted on Broadway in 1946 in an all-Black production entitled Lysistarta. He began appearing in Hollywood films by 1950, making his first major appearance in No Way Out.
At the time, there weren’t many roles offered to Black people in Hollywood, and it is a continuous struggle today. Poitier became a trailblazer in the arts for himself and the performers to follow him, by consistently turning down stereotypical roles that were offered to him as a Black actor.
He earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones in 1958, and his work in films like The Blackboard Jungle, which debuted in 1955, had made him America’s first major Black film star. His historic Oscar win for Lilies of the Field made him the second African American to win an Academy Award. The first Black film star to win was Hattie McDaniel, who won in the Best Supporting Actress category in 1939 for her performance in Gone with the Wind.
McDaniel played a stereotypical role for a Black actress as the Mammy, who was the tough but indulgent slave governess to the spoiled Souther belle Scarlett O’Hara. Organizations, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, criticized McDaniel for her role as an example of the usual stereotypical Black roles that Hollywood continued to promote. Critics of the film and Hattie McDaniel’s work believed she was preventing Black entertainers from advancing in the industry by continuously accepting these sort of roles.
On the contrary, Poitier created history by standing firmly on his beliefs and breaking barriers placed against Black people in entertainment. Still, one could not have existed without the other. It was also McDaniel’s contributions to the industry that helped Poitier excel in the film industry.
Thanks to Sydney Poitier for his major contributions to film! Poitier, now 94 years old, is presumably so proud to see how far Black people have grown in the business, and the stories we continue to share. Watch as Sydney Poitier accepts his historic Academy Award win for Best Actor below.