Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen had planned to become a nurse, but a teacher encouraged her to try dancing instead, which she finally accomplished. McQueen was born on January 8, 1911, in Tampa, Florida, and relocated to Harlem, New York, where she joined a Harlem theater group after studying nursing in the Bronx.
She appeared in the 1935 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a member of the Venezuela Jones’ Youth Theatre Group in Harlem. Her “Butterfly” stage name, which symbolizes her continually moving arms, was inspired by her performance in the Group’s 1935 staging of the “Butterfly Ballet.” McQueen made her Broadway debut in 1937 with “Brown Sugar.” She then featured in “What a Life” in 1938 and “Swingin the Dream,” a Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong musical, in 1939.
She earned her big break in Hollywood that year, at the age of 28, when she was cast as Prissy in “Gone with the Wind.” McQueen’s part as a teenage maid in one of the most-watched films of all time gained her celebrity, as did her unique high-pitched voice. However, she was unable to attend the film’s 1939 premiere since it was held in a whites-only theater.
She went on to star in films such as “Mildred Pierce,” “Affectionately Yours,” “Duel in the Sun,” “I Dood It,” “Cabin in the Sky,” and “Since You Went Away.” However, White filmmakers primarily cast her in domestic-servant parts, and she grew bored of the stereotype. Despite their brilliance, African-American artists were assigned jobs such as maid, butler, cook, bellhop, and bootblack during the time, owing largely to racism. So McQueen took a break from Hollywood for a few years, continuing her career on television, radio, and the stage.
She worked as a receptionist, a saleswoman, a Macy’s toy department staffer, a cab dispatcher, and a waitress at the same time. She performed in the television comedy “Beulah” from 1950 to 1953, one of the first shows to feature a Black performer.
“I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time because I thought that’s how you got into the profession,” McQueen stated once. “However, after doing the same thing over and over, I disliked it.” I didn’t mind being humorous, but I didn’t enjoy being stupid.”
McQueen studied political science at City College of New York in the 1970s. During this time, she starred in tiny roles on Broadway and in films, including “The Mosquito Coast” in 1986. She received an Emmy in 1980 for her role in the children’s play “The Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid.” However, according to IMDb, in the same year, a Greyhound Bus Lines security mistook her for a pickpocket and mistreated her, “pushing her into a bench and fractured many of her ribs.” She filed an assault lawsuit and was finally granted $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,” according to IMDb. Because she didn’t want the world to know who she was, her neighbors knew her as Thelma McQueen. Then disaster hit.
A fire broke out in her home on the night of December 22, 1995, after she attempted to light a kerosene heater. Her clothes caught fire, and firefighters discovered her laying on the sidewalk outside. She was sent to Augusta Regional Medical Center with second and third-degree burns covering 70% of her body. She died as a result of her injuries.
Even though she expressed worries about how she was portrayed in “Gone With the Wind” while she was living, she later embraced it as a part of history.
“I’m glad I did Gone With the Wind.” I wasn’t when I was 28, but it’s a part of African-American history. “You have no clue how difficult it is for Black actors, but things develop and blossom through time,” she stated in an interview.