Photo credit: Collin Cooper | Photo Senior Staff | @coop.97
Former Washington Post journalist and Pulitzer Nominee Wil Haygood told an audience at Utah Valley University on Jan. 14 how Eugene Allen, a former White House butler, became the inspiration for his New York Times bestseller, “The Butler: A Witness to History.”
Haygood, speaker at UVU’s 22nd Annual MLK Jr. Commemoration, knew Barack Obama was going to win the 2008 election after he met three crying white girls whose fathers had kicked them out of their home for supporting an African American candidate. At the time he was reporting on Barack Obama’s campaign trail for the Washington Post.
This inspired Haygood to find a black employee who worked at The White House during the era of segregation, and write a profile on him. His editor was not fond of the story idea but gave Haygood five days to complete the search for The White House employee.
After four days of searching, Haygood received a tip from an anonymous source about a butler who had retired from the White House named Eugene Allen. Haygood went to work finding Allen’s telephone number in phonebooks and found Allen on the 57th call.
During their first phone call, Haygood was under the impression that Allen had only worked under two presidents but Allen corrected him and said, “I have worked at the White House, but you have a major fact wrong, it wasn’t two American president’s that I have worked for, it was eight.”
Allen started working at The White House as a pantry-man in the basement, and worked at The White House for 35 years. Allen worked there from the time Harry Truman was president through Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
During Haygood’s first interview with Allen and his wife Helene, Allen recalled his most significant moments during his employment in The White House such as, meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When King came out of the meeting with Vice President Richard Nixon he told a White House assistant, “Take me to my people.”
“He meant take me to the Blacks because they are here somewhere and they are washing dishes, shining shoes, or working out the back. Take me to my people,” Haygood said.
According to Haygood, Allen recalled how it felt to be in The White House when Medgar Evers was killed for trying to register blacks to vote in 1963, the Korean War, when President John F. Kennedy’s body was flown back to The White House after he was assassinated in Dallas, and listening to King’s I Have A Dream speech on the radio.
During the interview, Allen unlocked his basement’s padlocked door, walked down the basement and showed Haygood souvenirs he had during his employment at The White House.
“I literally got weak in the knees. It was like being dropped into the loveliest museum that you can ever imagine. It was like being in the Smithsonian.” Haygood said.
Haygood recounted how the basement was filled with photographs of Allen with presidents and celebrities. Allen showed Haygood a tie President Kennedy had given Allen a day before his trip to Texas, and letters to Allen from all the First Ladies.
Haygood asked if Allen was either Republican or Democratic to which Allen said, “Just an American.”
“This man worked 35 years at the White House, never missed a day at work, he walked through the fires, walked through the riots, he walked through snow storms, he loved the first family,” Haywood said.
When Obama took office, Haywood recalled that Allen said, “When I was in The White House, you couldn’t even dream that you could dream of a moment like this.”
After Haygood finished the article of Allen called, “A Butler Well Served by This Election” he wrote a 112-page book on Allen’s life and Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to Allen’s story. Haygood worked as an associate producer during the filming of the movie that came to be called, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which was directed by Lee Daniel’s and starred Forrest Whitaker as Allen, and Oprah Winfrey as Allen’s wife.
When Allen’s became sick, he gave Haygood a gold-plated tie clip that he had received from Kennedy that Haygood wore to the commemoration. In 2010, Allen died of kidney failure. According to Allen, the city of Washington D.C. has designated Allen’s home a historical landmark.
Kimberly Bojórquez is a Los Angeles native currently pursuing her Bachelor of Arts in Communication with an emphasis in journalism, and a minor in Latin American Studies. From 2017-18 she served as the editor-in-chief of the UVU Review and worked at ABC4’s morning show “Good Things Utah”, Salt Lake City Weekly and the Daily Herald.
She has written stories that relate to national issues, local crime and social justice. In her spare time, she loves to take photos, hike Utah’s national parks and attend live rock concerts.