On this day in 1964, Sydney Poitier becomes the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, for his role as a construction worker who helps build a chapel in Lilies of the Field (1963).
Poitier was born in 1924, while his parents were visiting the United States from the Bahamas, where his father was a tomato farmer. As a teenager, Poitier dropped out of school and returned to America to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War II. After his military stint, he became interested in theater and applied to the American Negro Theatre in New York City. Rejected initially because of his strong island accent, Poitier trained himself in American enunciation and reapplied, this time successfully. He debuted on Broadway in 1946 in an all-black production of Lysistrata, and by 1950 he was appearing in Hollywood films, beginning with No Way Out.
By consistently refusing to play the stereotypical roles that were offered to him as a black actor, Poitier blazed a trail for himself and the performers who followed him. By the time he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones (1958), his work in such films as The Blackboard Jungle (1955) had made him America’s first prominent black film star. With his historic Oscar win for Lilies of the Field, Poitier became only the second African American to win an Academy Award. The first was Hattie McDaniel, who won in the Best Supporting Actress category in 1939 for Gone with the Wind. McDaniel played Mammy, the tough but indulgent slave governess to the spoiled Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara. Critics of the film, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), later pointed to the role as an example of the typical black stereotypes that Hollywood was keeping alive.
When presenting Poitier with his Oscar statuette, the actress Ann Bancroft congratulated him with a kiss on the cheek, a gesture that caused a mild scandal among the show’s most conservative audiences. Poitier took part in a more momentous kiss three years later, when he and Katherine Houghton shared the first interracial on-screen kiss in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967).