prissy butterfly mcqueen atheist
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Remember Butterfly McQueen?

Well, you do if you remember Scarlet O’Hara’s chirpy-voiced black maid Prissy in 1939’s Academy Award-winning film Gone With the Wind.

They’re one and the same.

YouTube video

Unconscionably, McQueen and fellow cast member Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for her role, also as a maid, were not allowed to attend the premier opening in Atlanta because it was held at the whites-only Loew’s Grand Theater.

Most people also probably don’t know that McQueen, who died at 83 in 1995, was a lifelong atheist and the first recipient in 1989 of the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s “Freethought Heroine” award at its annual convention in Atlanta.

Interviewed by an Atlanta Journal and Constitution reporter in 1989, McQueen said, “As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion,” adding that Christianity and studying the Bible had “sapped our minds so we don’t know anything else.”

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

A humanist at heart, McQueen said she tithed not to a church but “to my friends,” spending her own funds and energy cleaning up slums, according to an FFRF article.

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

Born in Tampa, Florida, she lived half the year in New York City and half in Georgia during much of her later life.

In 1947, after the success of Gone With the Wind and a series of other lesser roles where she also played maids, McQueen, then 36, left Hollywood to avoid the typecasting.

A 2017 article in Vogue magazine quoted McQueen’s rationale for initially quitting the movie business, although she went back years later:

I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business. But after I did the same thing over and over, I resented it. I didn’t mind being funny but I didn’t like being stupid.”

With hindsight and foresight some years later, she then told The Washington Post:

“Now I’m happy I did Gone With the Wind. 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.”

McQueen, who legally changed her name to Butterfly because she hated her birth name, Thelma, picked it because she acquired the nickname Butterfly after she charmingly danced as a butterfly in a 1935 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

She returned to films in 1974, cast as “Clarice” in Amazing Grace, and as “Ma Kennywick” in Mosquito Coast in 1986 (Harrison Ford played the lead), and that same year appeared in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on PBS.

A lifelong student, McQueen took classes over the years at five universities and once read the novel Gone With The Wind. She graduated in 1975, at 64, with a bachelor’s degree in political science from New York City College.

In later years, according to media reports, neighbors of hers in New York and Georgia didn’t know her storied history and just knew her by her birth name, Thelma, or as her friends called her, “Momma Mac.”

She died tragically on Dec. 22, 1995, in Augusta, Georgia, from injuries received when a kerosene heater she was trying to light exploded in flames.

During her life she regularly enjoyed one off-stage role as Santa Claus at children’s hospitals.

“She reported that children were delighted with a black female Santa with a high voice,” the FFRF article noted.

(Thanks to my friend Doug Curran of Silver Springs, Maryland, for the tip.)


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...