A Butler Well Served by This Election
Friday, November 7, 2008
For more than three decades Eugene Allen worked in the White House, a black man unknown to the headlines. During some of those years, harsh segregation laws lay upon the land.
He trekked home every night, his wife, Helene, keeping him out of her kitchen.
At the White House, he worked closer to the dirty dishes than to the large desk in the Oval Office. Helene didn't care; she just beamed with pride.
President Truman called him Gene.
President Ford liked to talk golf with him.
He saw eight presidential administrations come and go, often working six days a week. "I never missed a day of work," Allen says.
His is a story from the back pages of history. A figure in the tiniest of print. The man in the kitchen.
He was there while America's racial history was being remade: Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights bills, the assassinations.
When he started at the White House in 1952, he couldn't even use the public restrooms when he ventured back to his native Virginia. "We had never had anything," Allen, 89, recalls of black America at the time. "I was always hoping things would get better."
In its long history, the White House -- just note the name -- has had a complex and vexing relationship with black Americans.
"The history is not so uneven at the lower level, in the kitchen," says Ted Sorensen, who served as counselor to President Kennedy. "In the kitchen, the folks have always been black. Even the folks at the door -- black."
Sorensen tried to address the matter of blacks in the White House. But in the end, there was only one black man who stayed on the executive staff at the Kennedy White House past the first year. "There just weren't as many blacks as there should have been," says Sorensen. "Sensitivities weren't what they should have been, or could have been."