McQueen in Affectionately Yours (1941)
January 7, 1911
Tampa, Florida, U.S.
|Died||December 22, 1995
Augusta, Georgia, U.S.
Cause of death
|Burns sustained in a fire|
|Alma mater||City College of New York|
Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen (January 7, 1911 – December 22, 1995) was an American actress. Originally a dancer, McQueen first appeared as Prissy, Scarlett O'Hara's maid in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. She continued as an actress in film in the 1940s, then moving to television acting in the 1950s. During World War II, she frequently appeared on the Armed Forces Broadcast "Jubilee," as a comedienne. Many of these broadcasts are available on the Internet Archive.
Early life and education
Born Thelma McQueen in Tampa, Florida on January 7, 1911, she had planned to become a nurse until a high school teacher suggested that she try acting. McQueen initially studied with Janet Collins and went on to dance with the Venezuela Jones Negro Youth Group. Around this time she acquired the nickname "Butterfly" – a tribute to her constantly moving hands – for her performance of the Butterfly Ballet in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. (She had always hated her birth name, and later legally changed her name to Butterfly McQueen.) She performed with the dance troupe of Katherine Dunham before making her professional debut in George Abbott's Brown Sugar.
McQueen's first role would become her most identifiable – as Prissy, the young maid in Gone with the Wind, She changed the world with her acting uttering the famous words: "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!" Her distinctive, high-pitched voice was noted by a critic who described it as, "The itsy-little voice fading over the far horizon of comprehension". While the role is well known to audiences, McQueen did not enjoy playing the part and felt it was demeaning to African Americans.
She also played an uncredited bit part as a sales assistant in The Women (1939), filmed after Gone with the Wind but released before it. She also played Butterfly, Rochester's niece and Mary Livingstone's maid in the Jack Benny radio program, for a time during World War II. She appeared in an uncredited role in Mildred Pierce (1945) (where she had a good amount of screen time) and played a supporting role in Duel in the Sun (1946). By 1947, she had grown tired of the ethnic stereotypes she was required to play and ended her film career.
Offers for acting roles began to dry up around this time, and she devoted herself to other pursuits including political study; she received a Bachelor's degree in political science from City College of New York in 1975. In 1979 McQueen won a Daytime Emmy Award for her performance as Aunt Thelma, a fairy godmother in the ABC Afterschool Special episode "The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody." She had one more role of substance in the 1986 film The Mosquito Coast.
McQueen was in the original version of the stage musical The Wiz when it debuted in Baltimore in 1974. She played the Queen of the Field Mice, a character from the original L. Frank Baum novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; however, when the show was revised prior to going to Broadway, McQueen's role was cut by incoming director Geoffrey Holder. McQueen however did replace Clarice Taylor later in the play's Broadway run in the role of Addaperle.
In July 1983, a jury awarded McQueen $60,000 in a judgment stemming 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 April 1979.
In 1989, the Freedom From Religion Foundation honored her with its Freethought Heroine Award. "I'm an atheist," she had declared, "and Christianity appears to me to be the most absurd imposture of all the religions, and I'm puzzled that so many people can't see through a religion that encourages irresponsibility and bigotry." She told a reporter, "As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion." This quote was used by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in advertisements inside Madison, Wisconsin, buses in 2009 and in an Atlanta market in 2010.
She lamented that, had humans put the energy on earth and on people that had been put on mythology and on Jesus Christ, there would be less hunger and homelessness. "They say the streets are going to be beautiful in Heaven. Well, I’m trying to make the streets beautiful here ... When it’s clean and beautiful, I think America is heaven. And some people are hell."
Later life and death
|1939||The Women||Lulu - Cosmetics Counter Maid||Uncredited|
|1939||Gone with the Wind||Prissy|
|1943||Cabin in the Sky||Lily|
|1943||I Dood It||Annette||Alternative title: By Hook or by Crook|
|1945||Flame of Barbary Coast||Beulah – Flaxen's Maid||Alternative title: Flame of the Barbary Coast|
|1945||Mildred Pierce||Lottie – Mildred's Maid||Uncredited|
|1946||Duel in the Sun||Vashti||Alternative title: King Vidor's Duel in the Sun|
|1950||Studio One||Episode: "Give Us Our Dream"|
|1950 to 1953||Beulah||Oriole||4 episodes|
|1951||Lux Video Theatre||Mary||Episode: "Weather for Today"|
|1957||Hallmark Hall of Fame||Episode: "The Green Pastures"|
|1978||ABC Weekend Special||Aunt Thelma||Episode: "The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody"|
|1979||ABC Afterschool Special||Aunt Thelma||Episode: "Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid"|
|1981||The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn||Television movie|
|1985||Adventures of Huckleberry Finn||Blind Negress||Television movie|
|1986||The Mosquito Coast||Ma Kennywick|
|1988||The Making of a Legend: Gone With The Wind||Herself (Interview)||Television documentary|
|1989||Polly||Miss Priss||Television movie|
- JM Appel234. Butterfly McQueen. St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Jan. 1 2000.
- Hunter, Charlayne (1970-07-30). "Butterfly McQueen Has New Role". The Palm Beach Post. p. B5. Retrieved 6 February 2015.
- Hubbard Burns, Diane (1980-02-08). "Butterfly McQueen's a Character". The Palm Beach Post. p. B1. Retrieved 23 November 2012.
- "Butterfly McQueen, 84, 'Gone With the Wind' Actress, Dies From Burns". Jet (Johnson Publishing Company) 89 (9): 60. 1996-01-15. ISSN 0021-5996.
- James, Edward T.; Sicherman, Barbara; Wilson James, Janet; Boyer, Paul S. (2004). Ware, Susan; Braukman, Stacy, eds. Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Completing the Twentieth Century. Notable American Women 5. Harvard University Press. p. 438. ISBN 0-674-01488-X.
- Place, John (1983-07-13). "Butterfly McQueen Wins $60,000". The Pittsburgh Press. p. A2. Retrieved 23 November 2012.
- Atlanta Journal and Constitution (8 October 1989)
- "Atheists, church face off in Madison bus advertising". jsonline.com. 2009-03-11.
- "Billboards shun religion, promote separation of church and state". ajc.com. 2010-09-10.
- Freedom From Religion Foundation at the Wayback Machine (archived December 5, 2009)
- Celebrities in Hell, Warren Allen Smith (schelCpress, 2002), Page 76
- Alvarez, Lizette (1995-12-23). "Butterfly McQueen Dies at 84; Played Scarlett O'Hara's Maid". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-03-14.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Butterfly McQueen.|
- Butterfly McQueen at the Internet Broadway Database
- Butterfly McQueen at the Internet Off-Broadway Database
- Butterfly McQueen at the Internet Movie Database
- "Butterfly McQueen". Find a Grave. Retrieved August 10, 2010.
- Butterfly McQueen
- Hear Butterfly McQueen perform on a broadcast of Dinah Shore's radio show