Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen’s plan was to become a nurse, but a teacher asked her to take up dancing, which she eventually did. Born in Tampa, Florida on January 8, 1911, McQueen moved to Harlem, New York, where she joined a Harlem theater group after having studied nursing in the Bronx.
As a member of the Venezuela Jones’s Youth Theatre Group in Harlem, she performed in the Group’s 1935 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Her “Butterfly” stage name, which describes her constantly moving arms, came from dancing the “Butterfly Ballet” in the Group’s 1935 production. In 1937, McQueen debuted on Broadway in “Brown Sugar”. She then appeared in “What a Life” in 1938 and the Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong musical, “Swingin the Dream” in 1939.
That year, at the age of 28, she got her big break in Hollywood when she was cast as Prissy in “Gone with the Wind”. McQueen’s role as a teenage maid with her unusual high-pitched voice brought her fame in one of the most-watched films of all time. But she couldn’t attend the 1939 premiere of the film because it was held in a whites-only theater.
She went on to work in Hollywood, appearing in such films as “Mildred Pierce”, “Affectionately Yours”, “Duel In the Sun”, “I Dood It”, “Cabin in the Sky” and “Since You Went Away”. But White filmmakers mostly cast her in domestic-servant roles and she became tired of the typecasting. Maid, butler, cook, bellhop, and bootblack were the roles assigned to African-American performers at the time despite being talented, and it was largely because of racism. So McQueen took a step back from Hollywood for several years, continuing her entertainment career on television, radio and the stage.
At the same time, she found work as a receptionist, a saleswoman, Macy’s toy department employee, a cab dispatcher, and a waitress. From 1950 to 1953, she appeared in the television comedy “Beulah”, one of the first shows to feature a Black performer.
“I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business,” McQueen once said. “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.”
In the 1970s, McQueen earned a degree in political science at the City College of New York. During this period, she appeared in small roles in Broadway productions and in films such as “The Mosquito Coast” in 1986. In 1980 she won an Emmy for her performance in a children’s production “The Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid”. But in that same year, a Greyhound Bus Lines guard mistook her for a pickpocket and harassed her, “throwing her against a bench and cracking several of her ribs,” according to IMDb. She sued for assault and was eventually 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,” IMDb adds. Her neighbors knew her as Thelma McQueen because she did not want the public to know who she was. Then tragedy struck.
On the night of December 22, 1995, a fire broke out in her home after she tried to light a kerosene heater. Her clothes caught fire and she was found by firefighters lying on the sidewalk outside. She was taken to Augusta Regional Medical Center with second and third-degree burns over 70 percent of her body. She died from her injuries.
Even though while alive she raised concerns over how she was portrayed in “Gone With the Wind”, she later accepted it as a part of history.
“Now I am happy I did Gone With the Wind. I wasn’t when I was 28, but it’s part of Black history. You have no idea how hard it is for Black actors, but things change, things blossom in time,” she said in an interview.