Was Whoopi Goldberg the First Black Actress to Win an Oscar?

When Mahershala Ali won his second Academy Award, he joined a very short list of African-American actors. The only other black performer with multiple Oscars is Denzel Washington, who won Best Supporting Actor for Glory (1989) and Best Actor for Training Day (2001).

That feat has never been matched by a black actress. In fact, prior to Whoopi Goldberg’s second Oscar nomination (for 1990’s Ghost), no black woman had even been in the running for two Academy Awards.

Prior to Whoopi’s first nomination for her film debut in The Color Purple, she’d been completely unknown in Hollywood. Just a few years earlier, she was on the verge of homelessness in California. With her breakout in The Color Purple and Oscar win for Ghost, Whoopi made history.

However, she wasn’t the first black actress to win an Academy Award. That spot in the history books belongs to the great Hattie McDaniel, who took home the Best Supporting Actress award in 1940 for her role in Gone With the Wind.

Whoopi was the second black actress to win an Oscar.

1991 Oscar winners
Kathy Bates, Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg and Joe Pesci | Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

McDaniel’s 1940 win stands out on so many levels. Along with being the first win by a black performer, her nomination also marked the Academy’s first for a woman of African descent. (McDaniel grew up the daughter of two slaves.)

However, she did not accept the award alongside her fellow actresses, which included Olivia de Havilland, who was also nominated for Gone With the Wind.

McDaniel needed a special favor to enter the segregated Ambassador Hotel and receive the Best Supporting Actress plaque. (In those days, winners in the supporting-actor categories walked away with plaques rather than statues.)

More than half a century had passed when Whoopi became the second black woman to win an Oscar. In between, six African-American had received Best Supporting Actress nominations. But Whoopi’s was the first since the Civil Rights Era.

Whoopi would have broken new ground with a Best Actress win in 1986.

Whoopi and daughter Alex Martin at the '91 Oscars
Whoopi Goldberg and daughter Alexandra Martin attend 63rd Annual Academy Awards on March 25, 1991 in Los Angeles. | Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

While McDaniel became the first black performer to win an Oscar so long ago, African-American women remained shut out in the Best Actress category when Whoopi received her 1986 nod for The Color Purple.

That year, she faced particularly stiff competition that included Geraldine Page, who won the Oscar for The Trip to Bountiful. At the time, Whoopi was only the fifth black actress to receive a nomination for a leading role.

History had to wait another 16 years, when Halle Berry won the Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball. While four black actresses have received nominations in the category since, Berry’s win remains the only one.

In the supporting actress category, six black women have followed in McDaniel and Whoopi’s footsteps since the latter’s 1991 win. Regina King, who won for If Beale Street Could Talk, became the latest black woman to win an Oscar in 2019.

Also seeThe Controversy That Put Whoopi Goldberg’s Career on Hold