Butterfly McQueen: The great Atheist

Thelma
Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen in Affectionately Yours (1941)

Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen (January 7, 1911 – December 22, 1995) was an American actress. Originally a dancer, McQueen first appeared as Prissy, Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. She continued as an actress in film in the 1940s, then moving to television acting in the 1950s.

Early life and education

Born Thelma McQueen in Tampa, Florida on January 7, 1911, she had planned to become a nurse until a high school teacher suggested that she try acting. McQueen initially studied with Janet Collins and went on to dance with the Venezuela Jones Negro Youth Group. Around this time she acquired the nickname “Butterfly” – a tribute to her constantly moving hands – for her performance of the Butterfly Ballet in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (She had always hated her birth name, and later legally changed her name to Butterfly McQueen.) She performed with the dance troupe of Katherine Dunham before making her professional debut in George Abbott’s Brown Sugar.

Career

McQueen’s first role would become her most identifiable – as Prissy, the young maid in Gone with the Wind, uttering the famous words: “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!” Her distinctive, high-pitched voice was noted by a critic who described it as, “The isty-little voice fading over the far horizon of comprehension”. While the role is well known to audiences, McQueen did not enjoy playing the part and felt it was demeaning to African Americans.

She also played an uncredited bit part as a sales assistant in The Women (1939), filmed after Gone with the Wind but released before it. She also played Butterfly, Rochester’s niece and Mary Livingstone’s maid in the Jack Benny radio program, for a time during World War II. She appeared in an uncredited role in Mildred Pierce (1945) and played a supporting role in Duel in the Sun (1946). By 1947, she had grown tired of the ethnic stereotypes she was required to play and ended her film career.

From 1950 until 1952 she played Oriole, another racially stereotyped role, on the television series Beulah. In a lighter moment, she appeared in a 1969 episode of The Dating Game.

Offers for acting roles began to dry up around this time, and she devoted herself to other pursuits including political study; she received a Bachelor’s degree in political science from City College of New York in 1975. In 1979 McQueen won a Daytime Emmy Award for her performance as Aunt Thelma, a fairy godmother in the ABC Afterschool Special episode “The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody.” She had one more role of substance in the 1986 film The Mosquito Coast.

It is not widely known, but interesting to note, that McQueen was in the original version of the stage musical The Wiz when it debuted in Baltimore in 1974. She played the Queen of the Field Mice, a character from the original L. Frank Baum novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; however, when the show was revised prior to going to Broadway, McQueen’s role was cut by incoming director Geoffrey Holder.

Personal life

McQueen never married or had any children. She lived in New York in the summer months and in Augusta, Georgia during the winter.

In July 1983, a jury awarded McQueen $60,000 in a judgment stemming from a lawsuit she filed against two bus terminal security guards. McQueen sued for harassment after she claimed the security guards accused her of being a pickpocket and a vagrant while she was at a bus terminal in April 1979.

Atheism

In 1989, the Freedom from Religion Foundation had honored her with its Freethought Heroine Award.

“I’m an atheist,” she had declared, “and Christianity appears to me to be the most absurd imposture of all the religions, and I’m puzzled that so many people can’t see through a religion that encourages irresponsibility and bigotry.”

She told a reporter, “As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.”

She lamented that humans had not put the energy on earth and on people that had been put on mythology and on Jesus Christ there would be less hunger and homelessness.

“They say the streets are going to be beautiful in Heaven. Well, I’m trying to make the streets beautiful here. . . . When it’s clean and beautiful, I think America is heaven. And some people are hell.”

Later life and death

McQueen died at age 84 on December 22, 1995 at Augusta Regional Medical Center in Augusta, from burns sustained when a kerosene heater she attempted to light malfunctioned and burst into flames.

A lifelong atheist, she donated her body to medical science and remembered the Freedom From Religion Foundation in her will.

Quotes

“As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.” This quote was used by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in advertisements inside Madison, Wisconsin, buses in 2009 and in the Atlanta market in 2010. It is also featured on bookmarks in the FFRF shop.

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