Armstead H. Barnett, who owns one of the largest and oldest black catering businesses in Washington and served as butler in the White House for more than 16 years, was honored last week as Ward 7's "Man of the Years."
Barnett was the centre of attention, but it was just not his style.
He was uncomfortable as he watched another catering firm handle the preparations for the party. He was uncomfortable as he stood in his off-white tuxedo being congratulated by relatives, business acquaintances and old friends from the White House - including Lillian Rogers Park, author of "Backstairs at the White House."
And when it came time for him to speak and to accept his honor from Ward 7's residents, Barnett could only muster: "Thank you all for coming."
But no one was disappointed. The crowd, filled with dignitaries including D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, Council members Betty Ann Kane and Willie Hardy - as well as long-time friends of Barnett - gave him a standing ovation.
Barnett's shyness dates to his first days in the District.
He came to Washington from Lynchburg, Va. in 1933 when this city was still a sleepy town with its southern prejudices. But Barnett was lucky. In 1938, a relative who was employed at the White House got him a job working in the pantry.
"During that time, working at the White House was one of the best jobs a black could have. Black people could not believe I worked there," said Barnett.
As the tall caterer spoke, his young grandson was wide-eyed. And when his grandfather told a reporter he had lived in the White House, the boy said incredulously, "You lived there grandpa!"
Barnett said it made the front page of local newspapers in 1941 when he got married and gave his address as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW to a clerk.
During his tenure at the White House, Barnett worked for three presidents, including Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower. During that period he rose from pantryman to second butler to butler-valet for Eisenhower.
In 1952 Barnett took leave from the White House to try his hand at catering. He said he had met quite a few people in the White House and wanted to see if he could be a success in business. The first year was so successful that he quit his job at the White House.
At first the business was located at 4713 Sheriff's Road NE, and he said he managed with the help of his family.
The operation, which developed a large clientele in Washington and Marylan, grew to the point that it was moved to its current location at 601 Division Ave. in Far Northeast. Depending on the affair being catered, his employes can range in number from 20 to 100. Just last week, Barnett said, his firm catered an event at the State Department.
Barnett, who lives in Northeast, caught himself when he began explaining how easy it was to talk to President Roosevelt. "You could always go to him with a problem." When asked if the problems concerned his friends, he nodded, but would not explain how he helped them. He just quietly changed the subject.
A host of people explained why Barnett was being honored in Ward 7 - basically: because he has been a good neighbor always willing to help. According to Hardy, "There was one time when a woman whose husband left her sent her kids over to Barnett's office to ask if he would loan her some food until she could pay him."
Hardy said Barnett never said a word, but he sent the children home with bags of food and fed the family for more than a year without ever asking the woman to pay. CAPTION: Picture, Armstead R. Barnett and his granddaughter, Jadine. By Fred Sweets - The Washington Post