Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Remembering Butterfly McQueen

Not many people know that Atheists / Secular Humanists played essential roles in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This article in USA Today reviews efforts to recognize the contributions of these Atheist civil rights workers, as well as efforts to focus attention on black Atheists in the USA over the years. Many recent efforts have been in conjunction with Black History Month (February), but efforts are ongoing. For instance, Norm R. Allen Jr. of the Institute for Science and Human Values, a humanist organization based in Tampa, Fla. has promoted recognition for African-American nonbelievers since he founded the group African Americans for Humanism in 1989.

But there's a name I'm not seeing in all these efforts, and it needs to be there. And that name is Butterfly McQueen.

Butterfly McQueen was "Prissy" in Gone With the Wind. That's all most people know about her, and goodness knows we've all imitated her famous line, "I don't know nuthin' 'bout birthin' no

But there's soooo much more you should know about her.

I got an inkling that there was a lot more to this person than I had imagined when a friend of mine back in my home town, obsessed with Gone with the Wind, found addresses for various people who were in the movie and still alive, including for Butterfly McQueen. She wrote all
of them. Butterfly McQueen wrote back a terrific, full-page, hand-written letter that was so full of enthusiasm and charm and a geniune warmth and kindness. My friend had it framed. We gawked over it on more than one occasion.

I cobbled together information about her from various Internet searches a few years back, and I was shocked at what I discovered the more I read about her:

After playing maids in the movies, on TV and the stage over many years, McQueen took a break from acting and worked a succession of jobs, including as 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." She returned to acting occasionally; I remember her from an "ABC Weekend Special", a really charming story called The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody that I adored. She also had a tiny role in Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford.

But she was also a continual student, taking classes at five universities and even reading Gone with the Wind in Spanish. In 1975, at the age of 64, she received a bachelor's degree in political science from New York City College.

And in 1989, she received the first ever "Freethought Heroine" award from the Freedom from Religion Foundation at its national convention in Atlanta, coincidentally held during the 50th anniversary of Gone With the Wind. McQueen had been a member of the Foundation since 1981. After brief remarks and a poetry recitation before that audience at the convention, she sang Paper Moon, accompanied by piano. I now can't hear that song without thinking of her and imaging her child-like voice singing that song. If I had a time machine, it would be one of the moments I would like to go back and witness for myself.

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."

McQueen was raised a Christian, but questioned the value of organized religion even as a child - something I can most definitely identify with. 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."

She also said 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 friends and neighbors. This included "adopting" a public elementary school in her beloved neighborhood of Harlem, where she patrolled the playground, picked up litter and looked after the children. "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."

"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."

Sadly, she died of injuries suffered in a kerosene-heater accident at her Augusta, Georgia home on Dec. 22, 1995. And it surprised many people when it was revealed that she remembered the Freedom From Religion Foundation in her will.

Her life is fascinating, full of dignity, grace, compassion, a love of learning and a passion for critical thinking. If Black Atheists are going to be recognized, then let's make sure Butterfly McQueen is there as well.


  1. As a Christian, I have no doubt that Butterfly McQueen is tragically rotting in Hell, along with Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and one of my favorite comedians: George Carlin, who I label as an explicit atheist.

  2. What is this "hell" of which you speak?

  3. As an atheist (Angry Athiest Black Woman) on YouTube, I admired Ms McQueen. Our stories are similar. As a child I could not accept religion because it wasn't logical to me. It's based on fear, faith, and no facts. It gives men a terrible advantage over women and children who are forced to believe it. It inhibits the mine's ability to expand, and I believe that this was done intentionally.