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On this date in 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first African American actor to win an Academy award for Best actor. He won the Oscar for his role as a construction worker who built a church for nuns in “Lilies of the Field”

Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1924 in Miami, Florida while his parents were visiting from the Bahamas. He dropped out of high school returned to America and enlisted in the U.S Army during World War II. Following his military stint, Poitier gained an interest in acting and auditioned with the American Negro Theatre in New York City  but was rejected because of his strong island accent.

Poitier’s interest in acting continued to grow so he trained himself in American enunciation and reapplied, this time successfully. Poitier refused to take on stereotypical black movie roles. His first Oscar nomination for Best Actor came with his role in the “Defiant Ones” in 1958.

James Baskett was the first to receive an Oscar, an Honorary Academy Award for his performance in Walt Disney’s “Song of the South in 1948.  Hattie McDaniel was the first African American winner at the Acacemy Awards. McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Gone with the Wind” in 1939. She played Mammy, a slaved nanny who spoiled Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara.

Sidney Poitier became America’ first prominent black film star. Poitier received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama at the White House in 2009.