Butterfly McQueen is best remembered for her role as an enslaved woman named Prissy in the 1939 movie Gone With the Wind. For most of her film career, McQueen was typecast as a servant, but when those roles became scant in Hollywood during the 1950s, she pursued jobs in musical theater, television, and radio. She won the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award in 1975 and an Emmy Award for her role in the children’s television special The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody (1979).
Butterfly McQueen was born Thelma McQueen on January 8, 1911, in Tampa, Florida. When McQueen was five years old, her father abandoned the family, and her mother, a housekeeper, sent her to attend public school and live in Augusta, Georgia, with her aunt. Her mother eventually settled in New York City, and McQueen spent most of her teenage years in Harlem, Long Island, and the Bronx.
McQueen joined the Youth Theatre Group in Harlem in 1934 and studied acting, dance, and music. The following year she landed her first professional stage role, performing as part of the Butterfly Ballet in an off-Broadway production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, thus acquiring her famous nickname. In 1937 McQueen played the role of Lucille, a maid, in an all-Black Broadway production of Brown Sugar. Produced and staged by George Abbott, a prominent Broadway director, producer, and writer, the show closed four nights later. McQueen, however, received a favorable review from the New York Times and was subsequently cast in Brother Rat (1937) and What a Life (1938), both also directed and produced by Abbott.
At age twenty-eight, when she was still working for Abbott, McQueen auditioned for and won the role of Prissy in Gone With the Wind. The role perpetuated Hollywood’s rigid system of racial stereotyping, but McQueen accepted it enthusiastically, with the hope that better, nondiscriminatory roles would follow. On the movie set, however, McQueen refused to appear before the camera in demeaning, stereotypical scenes, such as eating watermelon and spitting out the seeds, and she argued against wearing a head scarf. (The scarf remained part of her costume, nevertheless.) When in later years McQueen received criticism for playing the role, she defended her decision by stating the importance of acknowledging the history of Black slavery in the United States.
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.
During the 1950s and 1960s McQueen often supplemented her income with odd jobs. At one point she moved back to Augusta, where she gave music lessons, appeared on her own radio show, and opened a restaurant. In 1963 Stone Mountain Park, near Atlanta, employed McQueen to actually live in a plantation house kitchen and greet visitors. She left the park in 1965, and by 1968 the park ceased using her photograph to promote the plantation attraction after she threatened a lawsuit.
McQueen returned to Broadway in 1968 as Hattie, the lovable but half-witted cook in Curley McDimple. A year later she starred in her own musical revue, Butterfly McQueen and Friends. A role as an elevator operator in George Abbott’s play Three Men on a Horse followed, as did a handful of roles in various television dramas. McQueen returned to the big screen in 1974 as Clarine in Amazing Grace. Her last Hollywood role was as Ma Kennywick in Mosquito Coast (1986).
Throughout her life McQueen considered education and community service to be priorities. She took classes at several universities, and in 1975, at the age of sixty-four, she received a bachelor’s degree from City College of New York. She volunteered as a playground supervisor in Harlem and enjoyed playing Santa Claus in children’s hospitals. A lifelong atheist, she was a member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. McQueen received a Freethought Heroine Award from the Foundation in 1989.
McQueen died tragically in a fire caused by a kerosene heater at her Augusta home on December 22, 1995, at the age of eighty-four.