White House Butler Eugene Allen Witnesses Swearing-In

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Eugene Allen, who worked for more than three decades as a White House butler -- some of those years during an era of brutal segregation when he often had to use back doors despite his employer's rarefied address -- sat in the shadow of the Capitol dome yesterday and watched Barack Obama become the first African American president of the United States.

"I never would have believed it," Allen said, sitting in an invitation-only area. He wore a black cashmere coat purchased for the occasion, a checkered scarf and a Sinatra fedora. "In the 1940s and 1950s, there were so many things in America you just couldn't do. You wouldn't even dream that you could dream of a moment like this."

Allen received his invitation from the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies after The Washington Post published an article about him after Obama's election victory. The report chronicled Allen's White House career, which began during the Truman administration and ended during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and also told of his 65-year-long marriage to Helene. The couple had discussed plans to go vote for Obama together, but a day before the election, Helene, 86, died in her sleep. On Election Day, Allen went to his voting precinct alone.

The invitation to the swearing-in surprised him. "I've served a lot of presidents," he said, "but I've never been to an inauguration."

Allen, accompanied by his son, Charles, and Charles's wife, Ortaciana, was part of a historic crowd, estimated at well more than 1 million. "You have millions of people, like my father, who toiled and went unrecognized," said Charles Allen, 62. "He gave the first families his very best. And yet, he saw my mother go to Woodward & Lothrop where she couldn't try on a hat because of her color."

The son went on: "Now, in our family, we always thought he was extraordinary, and some of the first families thought he was extraordinary. But I don't think in his lifetime he expected this -- to be invited to a swearing-in."

"Amen to that," the White House butler said.

"My wife would have really enjoyed being here," he said as he waited for the official program to begin. Then, in a near-whisper, he added: "Yes, indeed, she would have enjoyed it."

A moment later, the voice back above a whisper: "We were so very excited and happy about Obama. Happy for him and his family."

And then some of the figures the White House butler had seen over the years on the job -- serving them tea or cookies or champagne at state dinners -- began to come into view.

"Oh my," he said, "there's Colin Powell."

"I knew that man right there pretty well," he said, nodding at former president George H.W. Bush, whom he got to know when Bush was vice president.

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