“From the moment I read Wil Haygood’s article about him in the Washington Post, I was moved by the real life of Eugene Allen.”
Oscar-Winning Director Lee Daniels
When I heard Wil Haygood speak last week about his journey writing The Butler: A Witness to History, I was reminded of a personal experience I had back in 2003. I was producing a TV program for a group in Chicago and on my shuttle bus from the airport to my hotel the older black driver and I talked about Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey—two world famous people with Chicago roots—and I told him I bet he’d seen incredible changes in his life and he simply said, “Yes, I have.”
Just five years later there would be more change when Senator Obama (also with Chicago roots) was elected the first black President of the United States. If that driver lived to see that day his story somewhat echoed that of Eugene Allen, the former White House butler Haygood wrote about who witnessed that arc from segregation, to the Civil Rights Act being passed, right up to Obama being elected.
Haygood was speaking as part of the Humanities Speaker Series at Valencia College (whose West campus is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse parts of Orlando, Florida). Back in 2008 Haygood was a corespondent for the Washington Post covering Senator Obama’s campaign trail. After hearing Obama speak in North Carolina he believed the tide was turning in favor of Obama getting the nomination.
“I get back to my newsroom and I tell my editor Steve, I said, ‘Steve, Steve—Obama’s going to win.’ He said, you’re tired, you’ve been on the road too long. I’m going to bring you off the road to get some rest. I said, no listen to me., Obama is going to win. And because he’s going to win, I want to tell a parallel story. I want to find an African American who worked in The White House in one of those service jobs, and I want to tell their story. Because when Obama wins it’s going to me the world to this person. And my editor leaned back and said, well, who are you going to ne looking for? What type of job would this person have held? And I said, Steve I really don’t know. I think I want to find somebody who worked in The White House who shined shoes, who did the laundry, maybe a maid, and this last phrase fell out of my mouth, I still don’t know where it came from, I said, or maybe a butler. And I said I want to find one of those people who was working in The White House before the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed in this country that freed blacks.”
His editor said he needed him back out on the campaign trail, but gave him five days to somehow find that White House worker. Haygood’s next hurdle was how to find that person. Here’s the compressed journey of how Haygood hunted down that story—one that had never been told before.
—He called The White House but was told, “Because of confidentiality rules we don’t divulge who works at The White House.”
—He called his Washington, D.C. sources and was told it was a great idea, but no one knew such a person or where to find that person.
—On the fourth day he received a phone call from someone whose daughter was at a party in Georgetown and heard he was looking for someone who worked in the White House before the Civil Rights Act was passed. She gave him the name Eugene Allen, but had no idea on his contact information.
—He went to a library and started going through phone books of Maryland, DC, and Virginia looking for Eugene Allen. He made 56 phone calls and struck out 56 times looking for a Eugene Allen who worked at the White House.
“I was stubborn, because I wanted to prove to my editor that such a person existed. So students listen to this—I kept at it. I kept at it. On the 57 call I said, ‘Hello, my name is Wil Haygood, I’m a writer at the Washington Post and I’m looking for Mr. Eugene Allen who worked for two presidents at The White House.’ And the gentleman on the other end said, ‘Ah, that’s me. My name is Eugene Allen. Except sir, you have your facts wrong. I didn’t work for two presidents, I worked for eight. From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. So by my math, that’s eight.”
Allen’s life was a real life Forrest Gump-like experience. He not only worked for eight Presidents, but had a front row seat to some of the best (and worst) moments in modern American history, as well as seeing/meeting/serving a whole host of iconic Americans: Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Martin Luther King Jr.
Haygood’s article A Butler Well Served by This Election ran in The Washington Post November 7, 2008. Allen was invited to the inauguration and went escorted by his son and Haygood.
“He saw the first African American President take the oath of office. And he leaned over to me and said ‘This is the first inauguration I’ve ever been invited to.’ He also said as we were leaving,’When I was in The White House, you couldn’t even dream that you could dream of a moment like this.’ He used the word dream twice.”
Something else that I imagine Allen couldn’t dream was that his life (and Haygood’s article) would be the inspiration for the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler , starring a whole host of stars; Forest Whitaker, Oprah, Cuba Gooding Jr, Venessa Redgrave, John Cusack, and Terrence Howard. Allen died in 2010 before the move came out in 2013.
Haygood wrapped up his talk last week saying that Allen gave him a gold plated tie clip that John F. Kennedy had given him. He added that he was wearing that tie clip, and ended saying that Allen’s house has been designated a historic landmark, and made this observation:
“In a way the story is almost spiritual. For it says in the Bible, that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. ‘ I like to think that the butler is up there in heaven with Dr, King, with the Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall , with all those he served who are up there are well. The butler, the man who used to sweep up the movie theater at The White House. And I’d like to think that he’s walking around saying to them, ‘Hey, would you like to watch a movie tonight? It’s about a butler.’
Special thanks to John Watson at Valencia for securing a copy of Wil Haygood’s talk for me to pull exact quotes.
P.S. I bought Haygood’s book and he signed it for my high school English and creative writing teacher Dr. Annye Refoe who not only helped put me on the track where I have earned my creative living the past 30 years, but who being a black woman raised Sanford, Florida showed a class full of white students A Raisin in the Sun and discussed the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. Later as work would take me through Watts in LA, Overtown in Miami, Cabrini Green in Chicago, Harlem in New York—and really everywhere—I’ve never stopped seeing the world through the lens she provided.
One butler, one writer, one teacher really can make a positive impact in the lives of many.
And I’ll close with this the video below of the multi-media performance of Three Black Kings I shot and edited a few of years ago with artist Gary Kelley. It was performed live by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony under the direction of conductor Jason Weinberger.
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