DID YOU KNOW? Thelma McQueen was a Tampa Native
known as "Butterfly" McQueen, she was an actress best known
for her role as Miss Scarlett's squeaky-voiced maid, "Prissy"
in "Gone With the Wind." Her delivery of her most memorable
line, "...We got to have a doctor, I don't
know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies," took Hollywood by storm.
Thelma's parents were Walter and Stella McQueen, who in 1910
lived at 229 Elliott Street in Port Tampa. Walter was a
stevedore at the port's phosphate elevators and Stella was a
housewife. Thelma was born on Jan. 8, 1911, and shortly
parents separated. When Thelma was five years old, her father
deserted the family. In order to support herself and her
daughter, Stella McQueen sought full-time employment in a
number of cities up and down the East Coast, sending Thelma to
live with an aunt in Augusta, Georgia, until she had settled
on a job as a cook in Harlem.
As a teen-ager, Thelma attended high school in Babylon, Long
Island, and later moved to Harlem. After a brief stint in
nursing school, Ms. McQueen pursued her acting career, finding
that the stage was much more exciting than a hospital. 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 Broadway show "Brown Sugar" in 1937. She
became a permanent member of the Abbott Acting Company.
She earned her greatest stage recognition in "What a Life" and
during its run was offered the role of Prissy in Gone With the
Wind, 1939. While the part
verged on stereotype, McQueen brought a
comic pathos to her portrayal. Like many black actors in 1940s
Hollywood, McQueen found few challenging roles and was usually
relegated to playing domestics. Among her better known films
are Vincente Minnelli's "Cabin in the Sky" (1943), Michael
Curtiz' "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and King Vidor's "Duel in the
Sun" (1947). Offscreen, however, she rebelled against
Hollywood's rigid system of racial stereotyping and often
insisted on altering scenes and dialogue that demeaned people
of color. McQueen's announcement in 1947 that she would no
longer accept so-called "handkerchief head" parts nearly cost
the actress her career.
Ms. McQueen devoted her later years to serving the
African-American community, saying she also felt it necessary
to acknowledge the history of black slavery in the United
States. "As I look back on "Gone with the Wind," for instance,
I feel it is useful to have this authenticity," she once said.
"We've got to know more about where we've come from. I wasn't
too happy about the whole thing, but also later in life, as I
looked around, I decided to take what I could get and then use
it for what I want to do."
See a wonderful video
of a 1989 interview with
this delightful lady, containing classic footage and her
comments at a 50th anniversary screening of Gone With
the Wind, where she embraces her role with warmth and
dignity, and reveals her lines in GWTW that were cut
from the movie.
In 1951, she put on a one-woman show at Carnegie Hall, but she
soon found she had to take on other jobs to support herself.
During the 1950's, she worked as a companion for a woman in
Long Island and sold toys at Macy's. At one time, she began
her own radio show in Augusta, "to instill pride in the
neighborhood," she said.
But it was upon her return
to Harlem one year later that she found a second vocation --
helping her community. She plunged into antipoverty work and
took a job as a waitress in a soul food restaurant. Fond of
children, she worked at the Mount Morris Park Recreation
Center as a receptionist. Her distinctive voice could be heard
through the corridors as she gave tap dance and ballet
lessons. She defined herself at the time through her
commitment to the "black family," she said.
Ever restless and determined, Ms. McQueen, who had never
completed college, graduated with a degree in political
science from City College in 1975 at the age of 64. McQueen
never married and never had children. She lived in New York in
the summer months, and in Augusta, Georgia during the winter.
At age 84, Ms. McQueen was critically burned when a kerosene
heater in her one-bedroom cottage just outside Augusta, Ga.,
caught fire. She suffered burns over 70 percent of her body
and died at Augusta Regional Medical Center on Dec. 22, 1995.
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