Butterfly McQueen

The Freedom From Religion Foundation honored actress Butterfly McQueen with its first “Freethought Heroine” award at its national convention in Atlanta in 1989, coincidentally held during the 50th anniversary of “Gone With the Wind.” Ms. McQueen, a Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a member since 1981, was best known for depicting Prissy in the movie “Gone With the Wind.”

Ms. McQueen was nearly a lifelong atheist. After brief remarks and a poetry recitation before that audience at the convention, she sang “Paper Moon,” accompanied by Dan Barker on the piano.

She told Gayle White, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (Oct. 8, 1989):

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

Although she was raised a Christian, she began to question the value of organized religion as a child. She related one eye-opening experience with clergy as a youngster, when she was riding a train to New York and offered to share her lunch with two young preachers. Instead of taking “one sandwich and one piece of cake, they took the whole thing.”

“If we had put the energy on earth and on people that we put on mythology and on Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t have any hunger or homelessness.”

Christianity and studying the bible has “sapped our minds so we don’t know anything else.”

She said she tithed not to religion but “to my friends,” spending her energy cleaning up the slums.

“They say the streets are going to be beautiful in heaven. I’m trying to make the streets beautiful here. At least, in Georgia and in New York, I live on beautiful streets.

“When it’s clean and beautiful, I think America is heaven. And some people are hell.”

Born in Tampa, she gained her unusual name after dancing in a butterfly ballet as a child in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Interested in purchasing some new furniture, she auditioned for the part of the simple-minded slave Prissy at age 26, and was initially rejected as too old, too plump and too dignified.

“I was the only unhappy one,” she reflected years later about the movie shot when she was 28. “It was not a pleasant part to play–I didn’t want to be that little slave. But I did my best, my very best.”

Her best was very good indeed. Ms. McQueen stole every scene she was in, whether opposite Vivien Leigh or Clark Gable. She was offered a succession of “maid” roles in such movies as “Duel in the Sun,” “Mildred Pierce” and “Cabin in the Sky.” She once played a WAC sergeant in “Since You Went Away.”

She quit movie-acting in 1947 to avoid further typecasting, although she returned as a maid on the TV show “Beulah” in 1950-1953. She appeared occasionally on Broadway, and supported herself in a succession of jobs as a real-life maid, a companion to an elderly white woman, a taxi dispatcher, a saleslady at Macy’s, and a seamstress at Sak’s.

She told The Guardian during a visit to Great Britain in 1989: “Any honest job I have taken.”

“Now I’m happy I did ‘Gone With the Wind,'” she once told The Washington Post. “I wasn’t when I was 28, but it’s part of black history. You have no idea how hard it is for black actors, but things change, things blossom with time.”

She returned to films in 1974, playing Clarice in “Amazing Grace” and Ma Kennywick in “Mosquito Coast” in 1986 with Harrison Ford. That same year she appeared in a PBS version of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

She was a continual student, taking classes at five universities and even reading “Gone with the Wind” in Spanish.

In 1975, at the age of 64, Ms. McQueen received a bachelor’s degree in political science from New York City College.

An off-stage role she enjoyed was that of Santa Claus at children’s hospitals. She reported that children were delighted with a black female Santa with a high voice.

In later years she “adopted” a public elementary school in her beloved neighborhood of Harlem, where she patrolled the playground, picked up litter and looked after the children.

She lived in New York in the summer and Georgia in the winter. Neighbors interviewed after her death said she was known just as “Thelma” by many who did not realize her identity, and as “Momma Mac” to friends.

She liked to ride a bicycle with training wheels around the neighborhood, was a health food advocate and usually lunched at the Belle Terrace Senior Center, where she played and sang from an impressive repertoire of classical music, jazz, and show tunes.

She died tragically of injuries suffered in a kerosene-heater accident at her Augusta, Georgia home on Dec. 22, 1995.

Only the blackened floor and roof of her small wooden cottage, built in back of her larger stucco house which she rented out, remained after the fire. Explosions, probably from two five-gallon containers of kerosene kept for two portable heaters, blew out windows and burned half the house down to the studs.

She ran from her house during the fire, engulfed by flames, suffering second- and third-degree burns over 70% of her body. She was conscious when firefighters arrived and told them how her clothes had caught fire.

Revelations that Ms. McQueen had remembered the Freedom From Religion Foundation in her will brought surprised nationwide coverage.

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Foundation President Anne Gaylor recalled how Ms. McQueen stayed in touch over the years through exchanged notes, calling her “gentle and kind,” and someone willing to speak freely about her atheistic beliefs.

Freedom From Religion Foundation