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Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen

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.

 Butterfly McQueen

Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen (1911 - 1995) is most famous for her role in Gone With the Wind (1939) as the slave "Prissy" with the high squeaky voice who didn't "know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies." Though she believed the part was demeaning, McQueen brought a comic pathos to her portrayal. For most of her film career, McQueen was usually relegated to playing domestics. Among her better known films are Cabin in the Sky (1943), Mildred Pierce (1945) and Duel in the Sun (1947).

McQueen could not attend Gone With The Wind's premiere because it was held in a whites only theater, but she was a guest of honor at its 50th anniversary celebration in 1989. The dizzy character of Prissy won Butterfly much affection from moviegoers but also contempt from some black audiences who felt she was playing a belittling character. These may have included Lena Horne whom Butterfly claimed called her "a dog" to her face. 

Born Thelma McQueen in Tampa, FL, she had planned to become a nurse until a high school teacher suggested that she try dancing. McQueen earned her famous nickname by dancing a butterfly ballet in a 1935 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Thelma always hated her real name and later changed it legally to "Butterfly McQueen."

McQueen was cast primarily as a maid in a string of movies made during the late 1930s and 1940s. In Affectionately Yours (1941), she played a maid who delivers one of the most degrading lines in black cinema history: "Who dat say who dat when you say dat." She also appeared in supporting roles in The Women (1939); Cabin in the Sky (1943); I Dood It (1943); Flame of Barbary Coast (1945); Mildred Pierce (1945); Duel in the Sun (1946); and Killer Diller (1948). But as servant roles became more scarce, McQueen was forced to look for work elsewhere. Beginning in 1950, she played the befuddled maid, Oriole, in two seasons of television's Beulah. She also appeared in some mediocre theater productions, including the all-black production The World's My Oyster (1953) and the Athenian Touch (1964), in which she again played a maid and a cook.

McQueen effectively retired from acting in the early 1950s. She worked at various jobs including a ladies' companion, selling toys at Macy's and hosting her own radio show in Augusta, GA. In the mid-'60s, McQueen began working as a waitress in Harlem, NY and later as a receptionist at Mount Morris Park Recreation Center where she also taught children tap dancing and ballet. At the age of 64, she earned her bachelor's degree from City College of New York. She made occasional appearances in films and TV specials in the 70s and 80s. Her last feature appearance was in a small role in Peter Weir's underrated "The Mosquito Coast" (1985).

Butterfly McQueen in her 70s

McQueen never married or had children. In 1980, a Greyhound Bus Lines guard mistook her for a pickpocket and handled her roughly, throwing her against a bench and cracking several of her ribs. She sued for assault, and after several years of litigation, she was awarded $60,000. She chose to live very frugally on the money and retired to a small town outside Augusta, Georgia, where she lived in anonymity in a modest one-bedroom cottage.

On TV, McQueen appeared regularly during the first season of "Beulah" (CBS, 1950-51) opposite Ethel Waters. She also played small or featured roles in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (PBS, 1986) and in two ABC specials for children, "The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody" (1978) and "The Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid" (1979) which earned her a Daytime Emmy. Her final TV appearance was in the TV remake of "Pollyanna" entitled "Polly" (NBC, 1989). 

Butterfly McQueen in Mildred Pierce (1945)

A lifelong atheist, she was honored with a "Freethought Heroine" award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 1989.

On the night of Dec. 22, 1995, a fire broke out in her home, and she was found by firefighters lying on the sidewalk outside with severe burns over 70 percent of her body. She said her clothes caught fire while she was trying to light a kerosene heater in her cottage, which was destroyed by the fire. She was taken to Augusta Regional Medical Center, where she died at age 84. A lifelong atheist, she donated her body to medical science and remembered the Freedom From Religion Foundation in her will. She was a life member of the organization, and left the contents of her personal bank account to the group when she died. 

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


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