The Life and Times of Butterfly McQueen

(Photo via Flickr)

“As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.”

–Butterfly McQueen, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 8, 1989

Butterfly McQueen was born Thelma MacQueen in Tampa, Florida, in January 1911. Her father Wallace was a dockworker and her mother Mary worked as a maid. After they separated, Thelma lived with her mother in Augusta, Georgia, where she was educated by nuns at a convent. When she was a teenager they moved to New York; her mother worked as a cook in Harlem and Thelma attended high school on Long Island.

After graduating McQueen enrolled in nursing school, but left soon after to pursue acting. She studied dance, joined a youth theater group in Harlem, and in 1934 was cast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She’d indicated her only previous experience was dancing the “Butterfly Ballet” in a school production, so members of the group started calling her Butterfly. She later adopted it as her legal name. (In his biography, Butterfly McQueen Remembered, Stephen Bourne notes it’s unknown when she dropped the ‘a’ in her surname.)

A minor comedic role as a maid in the short-lived 1937 melodrama Brown Sugar is credited as McQueen’s official Broadway debut, made memorable by her high-pitched voice and “nervous energy.” Several small film parts followed before her breakout role as Scarlett O’Hara’s maid Prissy in Gone with the Wind (1939). While many described her as a scene-stealer, McQueen hated the role. “I thought the movie was going to show the progress black people had made,” she said in an interview, “but Prissy was lazy and stupid and backward.” Incidentally, she and her black costars weren’t able to attend the film’s premier, which was held in a whites-only theater in Atlanta, Georgia.

McQueen appeared in several more films, including The Women (1939) and Mildred Pierce (1945), and was often cast as a servant. In the case of the latter film, she wasn’t even credited despite multiple dialogue scenes with the titular character (played by Joan Crawford). Frustrated by being typecast, McQueen turned away from film acting. She did radio work on the Jack Benny Show and was a main character on the TV series Beulah from 1950-1953—once again cast as a domestic worker. “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.”

McQueen later moved back and forth between Augusta and New York City, working myriad jobs including taxi dispatcher, factory worker, tour guide, Macy’s department store employee, waitress and restauranteur, and dance instructor. In 1975, at the age of sixty-four, she graduated from New York City College with a BA in political science. In 1979, in what she later said was the most embarrassing experience of her life, McQueen was mistaken as a pickpocket by security guards at a Greyhound bus terminal in Washington, DC. One of them threw her onto a bench, cracking several of her ribs. She sued and after years of litigation was awarded $60,000.

McQueen had a number of film cameos in the 1970s and ’80s, including an ABC Afterschool Special for which she won an Emmy. Her last film was Mosquito Coast (1986) about an idealist community living in a Central American jungle. She had one scene, in which she was shamed by a local missionary for not attending church, a characteristic that mirrored her real life. In 1989 McQueen was honored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation with its very first “Freethought Heroine” award. Declaring herself an atheist she said: “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.” Speaking to The Record in 1978, she remarked that “People who have God don’t have to be nice to you and me because they know he’s going to forgive them. But I don’t have anyone to forgive me, so I’ve got to be nice.”

Butterfly McQueen died tragically at the age of eighty-four from extensive burns caused by a kerosene heater that exploded in her Augusta, Georgia, home on December 22, 1995.