A Woman You Should Know — Butterfly McQueen

The old woman was lying on the sidewalk. She had been pulled from her one-bedroom cottage that was current engulfed in flames. Over 70 percent of her body was covered with third degree burns. It was December 22rd in Augusta, Georgia and it was cold. She had been lighting a kerosene heater to keep warm when it exploded. She would die within hours. Her neighbors knew her as a quiet 84 year old by the name of Thelma McQueen, tiny with a high-pitched funny voice. She was kind, spent time watering her plants and was in robust health. Did some of her neighbors recognize her? She had kept a low profile, reverting to her birth name, though she had legally changed it decades before.

When she died she reckoned she would not be going home to Heaven, because she didn’t believe in Heaven. Or God, blaming Christianity for enslaving her people. She left the contents of her bank account to an atheist organization.

She was born January 8, 1911 (according to her social security application) to a “mulatto” mother who was a domestic and a father who worked the docks. He wasn’t around for long as her mother Mary was listed as a widow by 1930. By age 8 Thelma was living with an uncle while her mother, living elsewhere worked as a servant. Growing up in the South she would say she didn’t know prejudice until she traveled to the North which she did, finding herself in New York. She joined a Negro Youth Theatre. At age 19 she was a servant. And perhaps she would have stayed as such. But she had dreams and a belief for the things she could do. In Harlem she joined a theatre group. Performing in a Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, dancing a Butterfly Ballet, she was given the name “Butterfly.” She claimed to dislike her real name and was happy with Butterfly.

1939 was an extraordinary year in films. The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory and Gone With the Wind. The heroines of the screen were Vivien Leigh, Bette Davis and Greta Garbo, Judy Garland and Butterfly McQueen. Her hated dreaded simpleton lines to Scarlet O’Hara would haunt her, her career and generations of African-American performers who took exception to her performance. “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies!” She hated the line, hated how she was told to portray the simpleton servant, Prissy and was miserable on set. Clark Gable empathized and she would always recall he was a real “gentleman.” She didn’t begrudge Vivien Leigh for really and truly slapping her hard. Sympathizing with the pressure Leigh was under to carry the picture and besides, “Prissy should have been slapped.” (Valley Moving Star 12–30–95)

It had been a hard won role. The producers wanted the role of the 14 year old to go to someone else, telling Butterfly, who was 28, she was too old, too overweight and “too dignified.” Singled out and given rave reviews, it would take decades until she could appreciate the role. Finally, she admitted Prissy made her well-known and gave her a living. Yet, at the time she didn’t want to play an endless string of maids and complained bitterly on the set of GWTW. Her co-star Hattie McDaniel told her she’d never work again. The compliant Hattie found herself to be the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Butterfly not only acted she sang, danced and played the piano. She had been singing in church — back when she still went — since she was 3. At the premier of GWTW neither McDaniel nor McQueen were allowed to attend the whites-only theatre. The NAACP boycotted the picture and numerous African-American’s were particularly offended at how blacks were represented in the film. Butterfly claimed Lena Horne called her a “dog.” Malcolm X said he was embarrassed by Prissy. McQueen later said one got “used to being hated.” She vowed never to do another role like it. She would go onto other roles, none quite as memorable. Work for African-Americans was limited. She had a substantial role in Mildred Pierce opposite Joan Crawford. Astoundingly, she is uncredited in the role.

She often quit Hollywood and acting, bouncing back and forth between theatre, radio and odd jobs. She worked at Macy’s, worked as a taxi dispatcher. She called herself a “worker” and took work were she could, even attempting to open her own snack shop. She didn’t want certain roles, she wanted parts with dignity. She walked out of Jack Benny’s radio show because she didn’t want to play a servant any more. “I would be disgracing my race.” She was tired of being “looked down upon.” A return to the stage in 1946 was a disaster. A rowdy group threw lettuce and bottles until she left the stage and the production. Some in the audience left in tears at the treatment they witnessed. By 1947 Walter Winchell was reporting McQueen was seen at the Unemployment Office.

It would take her thirty years and five colleges to earn a Bachelor Degree in political science. She did it for her mother who was illiterate. She sang in French, Portuguese and Spanish. “We were born to improve ourselves as human beings.” (Morgantown Sunday Dominion Post 1–8–75)

In 1979, living unrecognized she was sitting at a Greyhound Bus terminal when two security guards accused her of stealing. When they asked to see her ticket, she asked to see their badges. The next thing the 68 year old knew, she found herself slammed to the ground. Eventually she would sue and win $60,000. She would live frugally off the money and bought a home in Georgia. Though occasionally asked she refused most roles due to the increasing vulgar language and violence. She passed on Burt Reynold’s Sharkey’s Machine because a character was killed.

Butterfly McQueen was a thoughtful, generous woman who cared for the environment and her community, organizing the young in Harlem to pull weeds and clean up. In later years she was a playground assistant. Then finally in 1980 she received an Emmy for an Afternoon Special The Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid.

In 1989 she returned to Georgia, moving into a modest cottage. She rented another cottage to low-income tenants behind her. Her neighbors called her Thelma.

Then it was 1995 and Butterfly was 84. Her cottage went up in flames and so did she. Pulled from the wreckage was a GWTW scrapbook she had kept, clearly having made peace with the role she would be remembered for. Always thinking of others she left her body to science.

Zemeckis’ next work “Feuding Fan Dancers, Faith Bacon, Sally Rand and the Golden Age of the Showgirl” will be published by Counterpoint Press October of 2018. Follow her on IG, FB and elsewhere @lesliezemeckis www.lesliezemeckis.com

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Leslie Zemeckis

Leslie Zemeckis

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Author (Feuding Fan Dancers), Historian (Behind the Burly Q), Actor (Polar Express) & Doc. Director (BOUND BY FLESH -Netflix). (IG/FB @lesliezemeckis)