To most Americans, she is remembered as Prissy, the prating, neurasthenic slave in Gone with the Wind whose character is delineated in one immortal line: “Lawsy, Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!” But two guards at the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Washington, D.C. got a more recent and stronger impression of Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen, 69. Near midnight last April 7 she was eating peanuts in the ladies’ lounge there and waiting for a bus to Tampa when the security men accosted her. Accusing her of being a pickpocket, they wrestled her to the ground, Butterfly claims, bruised her ribs, and did not release her until she was recognized by a D.C. cop. This month McQueen lodged a $300,000 suit against Greyhound and its security firm for, among other things, assault and battery. “It I was absolutely the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me,” she said later. “I was shocked.”
Her Washington lawyer, Florence King, admits that Butterfly made no official complaint at the time, and never saw a doctor. D.C. police officer Melissa J. Sherr recalls that Butterfly “looked kind of vagabondish, wearing a head scarf and a long, full, brown dress, like back in Gone with the Wind days.” But King insists her client “is not senile or eccentric. Many times she still dresses as though she is on her way to appear in Gone with the Wind.”
Though Butterfly carries pictures of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh with her at all times, she says those days are, well, just like the title says. “Show business is only my hobby,” she insists (though she’s touring now with Forrest Tucker in Showboat). “My main job is community work. In Harlem, where I live, I clean sidewalks. And sometimes I go down to the white section and help [Democratic Senate candidate] Bess Myerson with her filing.” Though a Republican, Butterfly says she also supports Jimmy Carter, because he’s Southern.
A lifelong spinster, Butterfly is into health food these days (grains, nuts, yogurt), and she swears by the way of life on West 142nd Street. She finds racism rampant in the North but warns against overreacting. “I don’t think you should strip people of their prejudice—that’s all they have, some of them. We should just leave them alone until they mature.” Or, Butterfly might add, give them a few months and then sue.