Remembering a Florida Icon: Butterfly McQueen

By Douglas C. Lyons

Yikes! I missed Butterfly McQueen’s birthday.

Many others may have forgotten this Florida native, like I did. But, on January 7, 1911, Thelma McQueen was born in Tampa. She would change her name and experience infamy.

Her initial career goal was to become a nurse, but a high school teacher thought she had the talent to act. So young Thelma set new sights and became a dancer, hoping to one day get a chance to act. Her big break would come and it would end up being her most memorable role — Prissy.

Prissy was a young slave in the film, Gone With the Wind, and although McQueen didn’t have much of a speaking role, the line: “I don’t know nothing ’bout birthing no babies!” proved to be both racially stereotypic and iconic.

Butterfly McQueen

The part brought similar roles that McQueen found demeaning. Her commentary on the type of roles that came her way resonate today in our #Hollywoodsowhite era.

“I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business,” McQueen said. “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.”

Bottom line? McQueen had higher aspiration than the roles offered her in a time when film and television were clearly a whites-only realm. Diversity has come a long way from McQueen’s day, but there are still hurdles to overcome.

McQueen quit acting in films in 1947, but she continued acting, taking bit parts in television and radio. In 1979, she won an Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s  Programming for the ABC Afterschool Special episode “Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid.”

McQueen also earned a degree in political science, which helped her in 1983 when a jury awarded McQueen $60,000 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 1979.

Her only bit of controversy came long after the Prissy role in 1989 when was honored for her beliefs as an atheist. Her remarks at the Freedom from Religion Foundation event were later used as advertisements in Atlanta and Madison, Wisconsin. McQueen died in 1995 at the age of 84.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.

 

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