How Eugene Allen, butler to eight presidents, helped break down racial barriers
· By LARRY GETLEN
· 3:32 AM, July 28, 2013
· 10:55 PM, July 27, 2013
A Witness to History
In The days immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the sense of sadness in the White House was, as one might expect, all-encompassing — particularly for the devastated widow, Jackie Kennedy, and her two young children, John and Caroline.
To help alleviate, even briefly, the unbearable tragedy, a party was arranged for the children. The man who arranged it was one whom the residents of the White House could count on — time and again, administration after administration — to serve those residents with all the dedication any American could expect.
Eugene Allen, the White House butler since the Truman administration, “told the White House chef to whip up some goodies; he was going to have a party for John and Caroline and some of their little friends.”
Soon, if even for just a short time, the children were laughing and smiling; in the shadow of violence, there was “the cacophony of little voices squealing with delight.”
By the time he retired in 1986, Allen had spent 34 years serving eight presidents — every single one from Truman to Reagan — witnessing history along the way, and developing his own personal relationships with an incredible succession of the most powerful men on earth.
Allen is about to be immortalized on the big screen, in a film based on the article by Haygood. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” out Aug. 16, stars Forest Whitaker in a role based on Allen’s life, with Oprah Winfrey playing his wife and, in some creative casting choices, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan played by, respectively, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack and Alan Rickman.
Haygood first wrote about Allen in 2008, when, in the wake of what seemed a likely victory in the presidential election by Barack Obama, he sought out an African-American who had served in the White House in the days of segregation and beyond.
When Haygood first met Allen in the home the retired butler shared with his wife, Helene, he noticed only one photo of any prominence on the walls, which was of the couple on a White House receiving line. There were none around of Allen with presidents or anyone else of note.
Allen shared his tale with Haygood, how he was born in 1919 on a plantation in Scottsville, Va., and “grew up working as a house boy for a white family.”
He was employed at a country club in Washington, DC, when he met Helene in 1942 and married her the following year. In 1952, he got his first job at the White House, as a pantry worker making $2,400 a year.
While African-Americans were already working as butlers in the White House around the turn of the last century, the first to join a president for dinner there was Booker T. Washington, who dined with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. That news burned through the South, with Tennessee newspaper The Memphis Scimitar writing that, “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President, when he invited a [N-word] to dine with him at the White House.”
Even Harry Truman, the first president Allen served, was hardly devoid of racist sentiment. After a dispute with Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Truman was heard referring to him as, “that damn [N-word] preacher.”
Given the status of black Americans at the time, Allen’s employment at the White House was a remarkable point of pride for the “vivacious” Helene, and she was “quick to drop [that fact] on neighbors and fellow churchgoers.”
Allen’s position led to personal relationships with some of the most powerful world changers of the 20th century and to his time and again being a front-line witness to history.
During the Eisenhower administration, Allen was in the room as the president dealt with some of the harsh racial conflicts of the day, including “watch[ing] President Eisenhower argue with Arkansas governor Orval Faubus” during a famous dispute over desegregation in Little Rock. Allen felt a personal sense of pride when the president sent in federal troops to protect black students.
Allen grew close with Eisenhower, and the two stayed in touch after Ike left office. Allen recalled to Haygood how he would take vacation days to visit the former president, and how the two would “stroll the Gettysburg battlefield” together. “They genuinely seemed to have missed each other,” Haygood writes.
Allen watched Kennedy send federal troops to Mississippi to defend the right of African-American student James Meredith to enroll in the University of Mississippi in 1962. The following year, Allen was there as JFK marked the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with an event at which “the butlers had never seen so many blacks at the White House at one time,” with “upwards of 800 floating about,” including Langston Hughes and Sammy Davis, Jr. (“One of the black guests,” Haygood writes, “cracked it was like Uncle Tom’s cabin.”)
That November, when news reached the White House that the president had been shot, Allen and the other butlers grieved while waiting for the crestfallen family and others from the president’s traveling party to return.
“He remembers First Lady Jackie Kennedy being in a near-catatonic state,” writes Haygood, “and there were the low-pitched voices of the Kennedy children that seemed particularly sad.”
Allen thought that Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, was “brave, if somewhat vulgar with his language.” But while Allen’s admiration for Kennedy had been unequivocal, his feelings toward Johnson were more conflicted since, at the time, Allen’s only child, son Charles, was fighting in Vietnam.
“There were times, plenty of times,” writes Haygood, “when Eugene Allen wanted to march right up to President Johnson and tell him about his boy, Charles, who had been sent to Vietnam, who was sweating in jungle darkness, who was trying to stay alive and get his ass back home.”
But of course, as a White House employee whose job was to serve the president, that was not an option. (Charles survived the war intact.)
Allen didn’t have much of a relationship with President Nixon, the book implies, although he did recall the president “pacing the corridors of the White House, deliberating inner-office turmoil and his distrust of the press.”
Following Nixon, Allen not only shared a love of golf with President Gerald Ford, but the two shared the same birthday, leading to First Lady Betty Ford calling out, when they would bring out a birthday cake for the president, “It’s Gene’s birthday, too!”
During the Reagan administration, Allen, who was promoted to maître d’ in 1980, recalled the day that Nancy Reagan called him over as they prepared for a state dinner for West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. First, Reagan stunned Allen by informing him that his services “would not be needed at the state dinner.” She then stunned him again by telling him why — that he and Helene were to attend the dinner as guests of the president, “in honor of his decades-long service to the White House and the presidency he served.”
“He was deeply touched, could barely move,” Haygood writes. “He was the first butler in the history of the White House to be invited to a state dinner as a guest.”
For the first time, Allen entered the White House not through the servent’s entrance in the rear, but through the front door with the rest of the dignitaries.
Part of Allen’s success in the position was due to his understanding of the discretion required. Given the societal upheaval for African-Americans throughout the Civil Rights era, Allen’s neighbors “would want to rush from their porches and plead with him for information.”
But “Helene had trained these neighbors well over the years — a perceptible nod, a few pointed words in the grocery store aisle: Eugene couldn’t talk; he had to be discreet; he was no one’s gossip.”
After hours of Allen sharing stories during Haygood’s first visit with the couple, Helene said to her husband, “You can show him now.”
Eugene brought Haygood to a locked basement door. He opened it, then led the writer down a dark stairway. When they made it downstairs and clicked on the light, Haygood found himself surrounded by Allen’s history — framed photos galore of Allen with so many of the most distinguished politicians and other citizens of his era. Allen with Presidents Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Nixon; with Sammy Davis Jr., with Duke Ellington, him and Helene with Ella Fitzgerald. There was even a painting made for him personally by President Eisenhower.
“It was like being dropped into a museum. There were hundreds and hundreds of pieces of memorabilia,” Haygood writes. “These were treasures, likely bound for a museum someday.”
Eugene Allen passed away on March 31, 2010. While his last few years may have been filled with sadness after the loss of his longtime love Helene two years before, there was at least one moment of glory, as Allen — who served at the White House at a time when the president of the United States would still openly refer to an African-American by using the N-word — got to attend the inauguration of the nation’s first black president.
As he watched our new president come into view, Allen, “clearly overjoyed,” said, “I’m telling you, it’s something to see. Seeing him standing there — well, it’s been worth it all.”