Toni Vaz leafs through the pile of dog-eared papers on her kitchen table, searching for the smoking gun. "Here it is," the 83-year-old former Hollywood stuntwoman and bit actress says, pointing to a ticket stub for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 1967 Image Awards ceremony. Then she points to a photocopied newspaper column titled Lil Fisher's Scratch Pad. It's dated January 20, 1967. Second paragraph, 29th line: "Actress Toni Vaz, coordinating committee chairman of the Hollywood-Beverly Hills Branch of the NAACP, gave birth to the idea of the Image Awards, which will be presented Sunday, August 13th in the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel."
"That proves it," says Vaz, who looks remarkably young for her age—brown skin only slightly coursed by wrinkles, the smile cultivated during her dancing days still ebullient. She ruffles through piles of more paperwork, most of it affirming her contribution to creating NAACP's signature award. "I created the Image Award, but I haven't gotten proper credit from the NAACP for it."
There's no mention of Vaz's contribution on the NAACP website (www.naacp.org) or the awards' website (www.naacpimageawards.net). A spokesperson at NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore deferred to the Hollywood branch, which runs the Image Awards ceremony. An official for NAACP Image Awards Executive Director Vic Bulluck referred questions to the Lippin Group, a Los Angeles public relations firm. Their spokesperson told the Weekly to put the questions in the form of an e-mail. A return e-mail wasn't received before press time. Vaz says the runaround is typical of her 37-year fight for recognition. She claims every NAACP official, from former President Kweisi Mfume to chairman Julian Bond, knew of her plight.
"All I want is credit where it's due," says Vaz, who retired from Hollywood in 1988 and moved to Las Vegas in 1994.
The hallway in Vaz's southeast Valley mobile home is a shrine to her career, posterized with dozens of framed pictures of her Hollywood days (she got her Screen Actors Guild card in 1961). Here she is with Lou Gossett Jr. There she is, laughing with Ed Sullivan. And there—hugged up with Gene Hackman. It's the picture of her and four other black women, all of them bald and dressed in African tribal garb, that starts her talking about the Image Award, how she created it to "celebrate the image of the Negro," and counter insensitive images trafficked by Hollywood—blacks as bumblers, shills and criminals. The Diahann Carrolls, Cicely Tysons and Sidney Poitiers of the world deserved credit, she says, so she and others in the Hollywood-Beverly Hills NAACP chapter brainstormed the idea of an awards show. "I came up with the name," Vaz says. "Blacks needed a better image in Hollywood."
The successful inaugural ceremony foreshadowed the event's rise to prominence, becoming an annual affair honoring the best in 36 categories of African-American achievement, from music and entertainment to sports and literature. Vaz took pride in the award's popularity, noting on her application for SAG's minority committee that she helped create it. Recognition was short in coming.
The pile on the table includes copies of letters and certified mail receipts to NAACP officials. The most she's gotten since has been faint praise (she was mentioned in the program for a special tribute ceremony but not recognized at the event itself) and a slight diss (her name was spelled Tony Bass, on a 2000 program honoring longtime contributors to the Hollywood chapter).
Vaz is searching again. Some of the paperwork has yellowed with age, obscuring names, numbers and notes she wrote as reminders. Nor has she shown all the evidence. There's so much, she says, that she's forgotten to make copies. She'll fax more later. Her consternation peaks with a photocopied story in a September 27, 2001, edition in the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African-American newspaper. The headline, "Maggie Hathaway, Founder of NAACP Image Awards, Dies," has three squiggly lines scrawled through it—Vaz's scribbled protest. "You have to see this," she says, holding an April 1967 roster of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood NAACP branch—her name, address and phone number are sixth from the bottom. "Maggie's name isn't on here. "How could she have created the awards if she wasn't a member?"
Google searches of "Maggie Hathway, NAACP Image" conflict: one site says she created the award herself; another credits Sammy Davis Jr. as a co-creator. Vaz says Davis, whose name was on the first program, had nothing to do with the award. Another article credits Vaz and five others with formulating the idea of the Image Awards as a fund-raiser for the chapter.
Former Las Vegas NAACP President Gene Collins had kind words for his former colleague; Vaz was active in the local chapter for years, assisting Collins with neighborhood improvement issues. He believes her claim.
"She's a very good friend," Collins says. "She did excellent work during my tenure and excellent work with starting the Image Award."