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Butterfly McQueen

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Butterfly McQueen
McQueen in Affectionately Yours (1941)
Thelma McQueen

(1911-01-08)January 8, 1911
DiedDecember 22, 1995(1995-12-22) (aged 84)[1]
Alma materCity College of New York
Years active1935–1989

Butterfly McQueen (born Thelma McQueen; January 8, 1911 – December 22, 1995) was an American actress. Originally a dancer, McQueen first appeared in films as "Prissy" in Gone with the Wind (1939). She also appeared in the films Cabin in the Sky (1943), Mildred Pierce (1944), and Duel in the Sun (1946).

Often typecast as a maid, she said: "I didn't mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business. 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."[2] She continued as an actress in film in the 1940s, and then moved to television acting in the 1950s. She won a 1980 Daytime Emmy Award for her performance in the ABC Afterschool Special episode "Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid".

Early life and education


Born January 8, 1911, in Tampa, Florida,[3][4] Thelma McQueen was the daughter of Wallace McQueen, a stevedore/dockworker, and Mary McQueen, who worked as a maid.[5] After her parents separated, Thelma lived with her mother in Augusta, Georgia, where she was educated by nuns at a convent. She had planned to become a nurse until a high-school teacher suggested that she try acting. McQueen initially studied with Janet Collins and danced 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. Disliking her birth name, she later legally changed it to Butterfly McQueen. She performed with the dance troupe of Katherine Dunham before making her professional debut in George Abbott's Brown Sugar.[3]



McQueen was appearing as a student in the Broadway comedy What a Life in 1938 when she was spotted by Kay Brown, talent scout for David O. Selznick, then in pre-production for Gone With the Wind (eventually released in 1939). Brown recommended that McQueen audition for the film. After Selznick saw her screen test, he never considered anyone else and McQueen was cast in the role that would become her most identifiable – "Prissy", a simple-minded house maid.[6] She uttered the famous words: "Oh, Miss Scarlett! I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!" Her distinctive, high-pitched voice was described by a critic as "the itsy-little voice fading over the far horizon of comprehension".[7] While the role is well known to audiences, McQueen did not enjoy playing the part and felt it was demeaning to African-Americans.[5] She was unable to attend the film's premiere because it was held at a whites-only theater.[2]

She had 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 Jack Benny's radio program in the 1940s. She appeared in an uncredited role in Mildred Pierce (1945) 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. During World War II, McQueen frequently appeared as a comedian on the Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast Jubilee. Many of these broadcasts are available on the Internet Archive.[citation needed]

From 1950 until 1952, she was featured (and briefly reunited with fellow Gone With the Wind actor Hattie McDaniel, who appeared in the first six episodes before withdrawing due to illness) in another racially stereotyped role on the television series Beulah, in which she played Beulah's friend Oriole, a character originated on radio by Ruby Dandridge, who took over the TV role from McQueen in 1952–53. In 1964 she starred alongside Marion Marlowe in the Off-Broadway commercial flop, The Athenian Touch. In a lighter moment, she appeared in a 1969 episode of The Dating Game.

McQueen was in the original version of the stage musical The Wiz when it debuted in Baltimore, Maryland 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.[citation needed]

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.[2] McQueen played the character of Aunt Thelma, a fairy godmother, in the ABC Weekend Special episode "The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody" (1978) and the ABC Afterschool Special episode "Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid" (1979); her performance in the latter earned her a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming.

Her final feature film role was in The Mosquito Coast (1986). Her final appearance was in the TV movie Polly, a reimagining of the Pollyanna story with a Black cast.[8]

Personal life


McQueen neither married nor had children. She lived in New York in the summer months and in Augusta, Georgia, during the winter.[9]

A Democrat, she supported Adlai Stevenson's campaign during the 1952 presidential election.[10]

In 1975, aged 64, McQueen received a bachelor's degree in political science from City College of New York.[11]

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 Washington, D.C. Greyhound bus terminal in April 1979.[12]



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."[13]

She told a reporter, "As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion."[14] This quote was used by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in advertisements inside Madison, Wisconsin, buses in 2009[15] and in an Atlanta market in 2010.[16][17]

She lamented that, if humans had focused on Earth and on people, rather than on mythology and on Jesus, 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."[18]



McQueen died at age 84 on December 22, 1995, at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, from burns sustained when a kerosene heater she attempted to light malfunctioned and burst into flames.[19] McQueen donated her body to medical science[2] and remembered the Freedom From Religion Foundation in her will.


Year Title Role Notes
1939 The Women Lulu – Cosmetics Counter Maid Uncredited
1939 Gone with the Wind Prissy
1941 Affectionately Yours Butterfly
1943 Cabin in the Sky Lily
1943 I Dood It Annette Alternative title: By Hook or by Crook
1944 Since You Went Away WAC Sergeant Uncredited, deleted scene
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
1948 Killer Diller Butterfly
1950 Studio One Episode: "Give Us Our Dream"
1950–1953 Beulah Oriole 4 episodes
1951 Lux Video Theatre Mary Episode: "Weather for Today"
1957 Hallmark Hall of Fame Episode: "The Green Pastures"
1970 The Phynx Herself
1974 Amazing Grace Clarine
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"
1986 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Blind Negress TV movie
1986 The Mosquito Coast Ma Kennywick
1988 The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind Herself (Interview) TV documentary
1989 Polly Miss Priss TV movie (final appearance)

Further reading

  • Bourne, Stephen (2008). Butterfly McQueen remembered. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 9780810860186.


  1. ^ MCQUEEN, BUTTERFLY was born 8 January 1911, received Social Security number 123-01-9686 (indicating New York) and,
    Death Master File says, died 22 December 1995
    Check Archives.com for BUTTERFLY MCQUEEN. ($) Source: Death Master File.
  2. ^ a b c d "Butterfly McQueen, 84, 'Gone With the Wind' Actress, Dies From Burns". Jet. Vol. 89, no. 9. January 15, 1996. p. 60 Company. ISSN 0021-5996 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ a b Butterfly McQueen profile, St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture (January 1, 2000).
  4. ^ "Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen (1911-1995) •". 2010-08-31. Retrieved 2023-03-12.
  5. ^ a b Hubbard Burns, Diane (1980-02-08). "Butterfly McQueen's a Character". The Palm Beach Post. p. B1. Retrieved November 23, 2012.
  6. ^ Wilson, Steve (2014). The Making of Gone With the Wind. University of Texas Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-0-292-76126-1.
  7. ^ Hunter, Charlayne (1970-07-30). "Butterfly McQueen Has New Role". The Palm Beach Post. p. B5. Retrieved 6 February 2015.
  8. ^ Park, Jeannie; Sheff, Vicki. "Raiding Cosby for Her Stars, Debbie Allen Turns Pollyanna into a Black Musical, Polly!". People.com. Retrieved 16 January 2022.
  9. ^ 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. Vol. 5. Harvard University Press. p. 438. ISBN 0-674-01488-X.
  10. ^ Motion Picture and Television Magazine, November 1952, p. 33, Ideal Publishers.
  11. ^ "Butterfly McQueen, Actress born". Aaregistry.org. Retrieved 16 January 2022.
  12. ^ Place, John (1983-07-13). "Butterfly McQueen Wins $60,000". The Pittsburgh Press. p. A2. Retrieved November 23, 2012.
  13. ^ Smith, Warren Allen (2002). Celebrities in Hell. Barricade Books. p. 75.
  14. ^ Atlanta Journal-Constitution (8 October 1989).
  15. ^ "Atheists, church face off in Madison bus advertising". Jsonline.com. 2009-03-11.
  16. ^ "Billboards shun religion, promote separation of church and state". Ajc.com. 2010-09-10.
  17. ^ "Freedom From Religion Foundation". Archived from the original on 2009-12-05. Retrieved 2009-12-05.
  18. ^ Celebrities in Hell, Warren Allen Smith (schelCpress, 2002), p. 76
  19. ^ Alvarez, Lizette (1995-12-23). "Butterfly McQueen Dies at 84; Played Scarlett O'Hara's Maid". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-03-14.