Her•Story: Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen

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

Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen (January 7, 1911 – December 22, 1995) was an American actress. Originally a dancer, the 28-year-old McQueen first appeared as Prissy, Scarlett O'Hara's maid in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. She continued as film actress in the 1940s, then moved on to television in the 1950s. Raised a Christian, she began questioning organized religions as a child.

Early life

Born Thelma McQueen in Tampa, Florida, she had planned to become a nurse until a high school teacher suggested that she try acting. McQueen initially studied with Janet Collins and went on to dance with the Venezuela Jones Negro Youth Group. Around this time she acquired the nickname "Butterfly"—a tribute to her constantly moving hands—for her performance of the Butterfly Ballet in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (she had always hated her birth name, and later legally changed her name to Butterfly McQueen). She performed with the dance troupe of Katherine Dunham before making her professional debut in George Abbott's Brown Sugar.


McQueen's first role would become her most identifiable —as Prissy, the young maid in Gone with the Wind. Her distinctive, high-pitched voice also took people by surprise. She also played an uncredited bit part as a sales assistant in The Women, filmed after Gone with the Wind but released before it. She also played Butterfly, Rochester's niece and Mary Livingstone's maid in the Jack Benny radio program, for a time during World War II. She appeared in an uncredited role in Mildred Pierce (1945) and played a supporting role in Duel in the Sun (1946). By 1947 she had grown tired of the ethnic stereotypes she was required to play and ended her film career. From 1950 until 1952 she played Oriole, another racially stereotyped role, on the television series Beulah. In a lighter moment, she appeared in a 1969 episode of The Dating Game. Offers for acting roles began to dry up around this time, and she devoted herself to other pursuits including political study; she received a Bachelor's degree in political science from City College of New York in 1975. In 1979 McQueen won a Daytime Emmy Award for her performance as Aunt Thelma, a fairy godmother in the ABC Afterschool Special episode The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody. She had one more role of substance in the 1986 film The Mosquito Coast.

Religious Views

“I’m an atheist,” she once declared, “and 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.” In 1989, the Freedom from Religion Foundation honored her with its Freethought Heroine Award. She told a reporter for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (8 October 1989), “As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.” She also lamented that humans had not put the energy on earth and on people that had been put on mythology and on Jesus Christ, for if we had there would be less hunger and homelessness. “They say the streets are going to be beautiful in Heaven. Well, I’m trying to make the streets beautiful here. . . . When it’s clean and beautiful, I think America is heaven. And some people are hell.”

Legacy and death

McQueen never married or had children. She lived in New York in the summer months and in Augusta, Georgia during the winter. She died on December 22, 1995, at Augusta Regional Medical Center in Augusta, from burns sustained when a kerosene heater she attempted to light malfunctioned and burst into flames. When a Christian neighbor observed the incident, however, she told the Atlanta Constitution, “I believe she [Thelma] made it into Heaven. She threw up both her hands as she was coming out of that burning house, and made it in with Jesus.” On the contrary, the atheistic McQueen had been a Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation since 1981 and had included the foundation in her will. More Information: Recommended Reading Picture: http://philosopedia.org/images/7/77/Butterfly.jpg of the photo from the SW FB photos

Bridget Gaudette, VP of Outreach

Secular Woman