Do you remember little “#Buckwheat” from the Little Rascals? If you had trouble trying to figure out whether Buckwheat was a boy or girl in some of the films, you might be surprise to know that the character indeed did start out as a girl, but slowly morphed into the role of a boy. The boy role was played by William “Billie Thomas. Depending upon the era you grew up in, “Buckwheat” might have been one of the first #black faces you remember watching on the television screen.
“The Little Rascals “Our Gang” series aired from 1934 to 1944. Thomas was a native of Los Angeles, California. Thomas’ portrayal of “Buckwheat” did not come without controversy. Many people during that time argued that his character was associated with the “pickaninny” stereotype. However, Thomas always defended his work say that he and the rest of the people who played black roles in the films were treated no different than the white children.” (read more)
Billie Thomas first appeared in the 1934 Our Gang shorts For Pete’s Sake!, The First Round-Up, and Washee Ironee as a background player. The “Buckwheat” character was a female at this time, portrayed by Our Gang kid Matthew “Stymie” Beard’s younger sister Carlena in For Pete’s Sake!, and by Willie Mae Walton in three other shorts.
Thomas began appearing as “Buckwheat” with 1935’s Mama’s Little Pirate. Despite Thomas being a male, the Buckwheat character remained a female—dressed as a Topsy image of the African-American “pickaninny” stereotype with bowed pigtails, a large hand-me-down sweater and oversized boots. After Stymie’s departure from the series later in 1935, the Buckwheat character slowly morphed into a boy, first referred to definitively as a “he” in 1936’s The Pinch Singer.
Thomas played the role for ten years in the Our Gang serious. He appeared in all but one of the shorts made from Washee Ironee in 1934 through the series end in 1944. Thomas’ character was often paired with Eugene “Porky” Lee as a tag-along team, who often worked to outsmart the bigger kids. Thomas lived with a speech impairment as a young child, as did Lee. They were friends on and off set. The two became well known for their catchphrase “O-tay!” Thomas went on to enlist in the Army after his acting days. He was realized from active duty in 1956 decorated with a National Defense Service Medal and Good conduct medal. He lost interest in acting and did not return to Hollywood. Thomas died at the age of 46 from a heartattack the day after his mother took him to an audition.