By Nico MachlittSTAFF WRITER
Eugene Allen was a White House butler who served for eight presidents from Truman to Reagan. The Washington Post published “A Butler Well Served by This Election” on Nov. 7, 2008. The well-received article landed in publications like The Los Angeles Times, and was also made into a novel.
Wil Haygood is the author of “A Butler: A Witness to History.” Haygood spoke to Hofstra students Wednesday, Feb. 26, about his journalistic process behind what uncovered the story of the 2013 award-winning movie “The Butler,” directed by Lee Daniels.
Athelene Collins, director of the Hofstra Cultural Center, said she felt that it was very important for Haygood to come and share his story.
“Him telling the story about Eugene Allen is very important because it is something that you would not generally know,” said Collins. “To work for eight presidents, and then still be alive when the first African-American president [is in office], is amazing.”
Tatiana Brown, junior and vice president of Hofstra University’s Association of Black Journalists, was among the crowd of students that came to hear Haygood.
“The only successful journalists are the ones that are willing to work hard and look for stories that nobody has found,” said Brown.
Haygood was on the 2008 campaign trail, reporting on then-Senator Barack Obama and his race to the presidency. After seeing all the reactions from people at the events, Haygood wanted to contact an African American who worked in the White House before the Civil Rights Movement.
Upon hearing about a man who served under three presidents, Haygood called all the Eugene Allens’ in the D.C. area. On the 57th phone call, Allen, the butler, answered. Allen corrected Haygood, saying that he had, in fact served through eight presidential terms.
When Allen first came to the White House in 1952, he started as a pantry man that washed dishes in the White House and then worked his way up to maitre d’.
“For the next 34 years, this man saw American history and felt the echoes and the reverberations as they filtered through the White House … of some of the most heartbreaking, astonishing events of American history,” said Haygood.
Eugene Allen spent over three decades in the White House and was there for many historic and civil rights events, such as during Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the Civil Rights bills and the assassinations. He became close with many of the presidents that he served. President Truman called him “Gene,” and President Ford liked to take him golfing.
Although Allen was close with the presidents, racial inequality was something that he experienced first-hand.
“Eugene Allen worked at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, one of the most powerful addresses in the world, and yet when he went to his home state of Virginia he couldn’t try on a hat in a men’s store because he was black and had to drink from a segregated water fountain,” said Haygood.
Allen’s story is not about the high and mighty, and not about the presidents: it is about the unsung butler. Without Haygood, this story may have been forgotten.