A Butler Well Served by This Election
Moving Up, but Slowly
President Kennedy, who succeeded Eisenhower, started with two blacks, Frank Reeves and Andrew Hatcher, in executive positions on his White House staff. Only Hatcher, a deputy press secretary, remained after six months. Reeves, who focused on civil rights matters, left in a political reshuffling.
The issue of race bedeviled this White House, even amid good intentions. In February 1963, Kennedy invited 800 blacks to the White House to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Louis Martin, a Democratic operative who helped plan the function, had placed the names of entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and his wife, May Britt, on the guest list. The White House scratched it off and Martin would put it back on. According to Martin, Kennedy was aghast when he saw the black and white couple stroll into the White House. His face reddened and he instructed photographers that no pictures of the interracial couple would be taken.
But Sammy Davis Jr. was not finished with 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He got himself invited to the Nixon White House to meet with the president and talk about Vietnam and business opportunities for blacks. He even slept in the Lincoln Bedroom once. When Davis sang at the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, he famously wrapped his arms around Nixon at a youth rally there, becoming forever identified with a White House that many blacks found hostile.
Lyndon Johnson devoted considerable energy and determination to civil rights legislation, even appointing the first black to the Supreme Court. But it did not translate to any appreciable number of blacks working on his staff. Clifford Alexander says he was the sole black in Johnson’s White House, serving first as a National Security Council officer, then as associate White House counsel.
“We were fighting for something quite new,” says Alexander. “You knew how much your job meant. And you knew President Johnson was fighting on your behalf.” As a young man growing up in Harlem, Alexander had heard about Morrow. Mothers and fathers pointed to him as a grand success story. “Fred was a lovely man,” says Alexander. “But they did not pay any attention to him in the Eisenhower White House.”
Colin Powell would become the highest-ranking black of any White House to that point when he was named President Reagan’s national security adviser in 1987. Condoleezza Rice would have that same position under President George W. Bush.
The butler remembers seeing both Powell and Rice in the Oval Office. He was serving refreshments. He couldn’t help notice that blacks were moving closer to the center of power, closer than he could ever have dreamed. He’d tell Helene how proud it made him feel.
Time for Change
Gene Allen was promoted to maitre d’ in 1980. He left the White House in 1986, after 34 years. President Reagan wrote him a sweet note. Nancy Reagan hugged him, tight.
Interviewed at their home last week, Gene and Helene speculated about what it would mean if a black man were actually elected president.
“Just imagine,” she said.
“It’d be really something,” he said.
“We’re pretty much past the going-out stage,” she said. “But you never know. If he gets in there, it’d sure be nice to go over there again.”
They’ve got pictures of President and Mrs. Reagan in the living room. On a wall in the basement, they’ve got pictures of every president Gene ever served. There’s a painting President Eisenhower gave him and a picture of President Ford opening birthday gifts, Gene hovering nearby.
They talked about praying to help Barack Obama get to the White House. They’d go vote together. She’d lean on her cane with one hand, and on him with the other, while walking down to the precinct. And she’d get supper going afterward. They’d gone over their Election Day plans more than once.
“Imagine,” she said.
“That’s right,” he said.
On Monday Helene had a doctor’s appointment. Gene woke and nudged her once, then again. He shuffled around to her side of the bed. He nudged Helene again. He was all alone.
“I woke up and my wife didn’t,” he said later.
Some friends and family members rushed over. He wanted to make coffee. They had to shoo the butler out of the kitchen.
The lady whom he married 65 years ago will be buried today.
The butler cast his vote for Obama on Tuesday. He so missed telling his Helene about the black man bound for the Oval Office.